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December 2, 1999


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How An American Writer Thought Up Cotton Mary

Aseem Chhabra in New York

Alexandra Viets just could not forget the stories she heard from her mother, a refugee from Poland who lost her home and family during the Second World War. The stories of people searching for their home and their roots had a tremendous impact on her.

In the 1970s when Viets's father worked as a diplomat for the US foreign service and her mother worked for the US Information Service in India, Viets discovered the Anglo-Indian community. During the eight years she spent in the country, she continued discovering more of the unique community.

There were strong similarities between stories that she heard from her mother and in the stories of Anglo-Indians, she said. "These are characters who aren't quite at home anywhere," she said.

She too felt like a displaced person.

"In the same sense my whole life and my travels [besides India, Viets has also lived in other parts of Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East] have been a search for a place, a search for where I can fit in, how do I fit in... [These] are questions that are very profound to me."

More than a decade later, as a graduate student at Columbia University's film school, Viets transformed her experiences, emotions and memories of India into a screenplay called Cotton Mary. It won the 1992-93 New York Foundation for the Arts Award.

Last month, Cotton Mary, starring Greta Scacchi and Madhur Jaffrey, and directed by Ismail Merchant, had its world premiere at the London Film Festival. It is to be released through Universal Pictures in London in mid-December and in the US in the spring of 2000.

"Being in India as an outsider, a foreigner, a Caucasian, a girl and a daughter of a diplomat, what struck me was the attitudes of people, who consciously or unconsciously looked at me and treated me in an way reminiscent of something long ago [the British colonial presence in India]," Viets said recently in an interview.

"In writing this screenplay I now realize that this was perhaps the most formative experience for me -- that people looked upon me with certain attitudes shaped and formed by a specific historical context," she said.

Viets, who is 38, said while her experiences in India were framed by the fact that she was a diplomat's daughter and a student at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, she was always conscious of her surroundings.

"Because of just who I am and because of my sensitivity to the situation, I think I was watching, looking and observing and being curious," she said. Otherwise, she added, she could have forgotten about her life there, once she left India.

Set in Kerala in the 1950s, Cotton Mary fits into the mould of several other Merchant Ivory films based in India -- exploring relationships between Indians and the British, sometimes private citizens and at other times representatives of the colonial system. The new film focuses on the complicated interactions between a group of Anglo-Indian women and a British family. The film was shot in Fort Kochi in Kerala in late 1998 and early this year.

Cotton Mary (Jaffrey), is an Anglo Indian nurse in a local hospital who moves in with a British family to care for their newborn baby. Lily Macintosh (Scacchi), the mother of the new baby, is unable to breastfeed the child. With her husband (played by another Merchant Ivory regular James Wilby) away most of the time on assignment, Lily's health begins to decline.

Mary comes to the rescue by taking the baby to her handicapped sister, Blossom (Neena Gupta) who is a wet nurse and lives in the Alms House, a house for the poor. Gradually Mary takes control of the Macintosh household.

The presence of the "white" baby creates a stir among the other Anglo Indian residents of the Alms house, who continue to live in their privileged past.

The complex and tangled world of the Anglo Indians and the British, living in independent India, comes to a heads on collusion with the realities of the times, eventually leaving all the lead characters scarred.

Viets described the Anglo Indian as the "human residue, the forgotten, abandoned shadow of the colonial period.

"If you boil everything down, look at what was left and how that period affected individual people and their psychology -- in my own mind they (the Anglo Indians) are the strongest and most fascinating effect of the colonial period," she said.

"They are so conflicted, they are so torn. One leg here, one leg there, rejected by all."

As a foreigner and an outsider, Viets felt an immediate empathy for the Anglo Indians.

"In everything that I work on and everything that I am writing, I am drawn to looking at the stories and have empathy for characters who are outside, because my whole life is shaped that way," she said.

It was this empathy that inspired Viets to write Cotton Mary, and submit the script, first as her master's thesis at Columbia University's School of the Arts film program, and later to the New York Foundation for the Arts -- an independent organization established to aid the development of arts in New York state.

When she won the foundation's 1992-93 award, Viets decided to hold public readings of her script. Through a friend she met actress Sakina Jaffrey (the daughter of Madhur who plays Cotton Mary's niece, Rosie, in the film). Sakina introduced Viets to Madhur.

Through Madhur Jaffrey's initiative Viets, and the group of actors (including the Jaffreys) that she had collected for the script readings, were invited to Claverack -- an upstate New York town where Merchant shares a country home with his long-term collaborator, director James Ivory.

"Literally the next day we decided that the script would be made into a film," Viets said. "We were sitting in (Merchant's) room and it was kind of incredible."

Viets's role in the film continued with Merchant consulting her through the project.

Recently Viets gave a talk to film students at New York University about her movie experiences.

"It's actually an extraordinary story," she said. "Not only that the film got made, but that it is very unusual for the writer to be including in discussions about acting, casting and settings. And then being on the set in India, sitting next to Ismail, Jim (Ivory) and the cinematographer and going scene by scene everyday..."

At last month's world premiere at the London Film Festival, Viets, who had struggled with the project in the film school, finally felt vindicated.

"In the film school there were some professors and others, who were very supportive and then there were those who were not all," she said.

"They felt that doing a script on India and on something as obscure as the Anglo Indians would never be commercially viable. They said it would have such a limited audience that why waste precious and expensive time at film school working on something like that.

"I had to actually fight (in school) to keep that project alive," she said. "By the end of it I was so convinced that it was a worthy project, that it would make a beautiful film. And so when it happened I was thrilled beyond words."

Viets has not spoken to her film school professors since then.

"I thought I would invited them for the opening in New York," she said with a smile.

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