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|March 10, 2000|
Ismail Merchant bites the bullet
Ismail Merchant is frustrated and angry.
A week before the US release of his new film, Cotton Mary, the filmmaker finds his work embroiled in controversy in India. Anglo-Indian groups in Kerala and West Bengal have expressed outrage at the way the film projects their minority community and their leaders have called for the film to be banned.
On the surface Merchant, 63, who has been producing movies for 40 years, seems calm, composed and almost philosophical.
"One can't react to foolishness," he said in an interview from his office in Manhattan. "If you were to react to everything that is happening in India, you will be nowhere. The best thing is to keep on doing one's work and move on, the way Deepa Mehta has done."
Mehta's Fire was withdrawn from Maharashtra and Delhi theaters following protests by Hindu groups that its lesbianism was unbecoming of Hinduism. Hindu activists also barred her from shooting Water, a story of plight of widows, in Varanasi. But she vows she will complete the film.
Cotton Mary is the third feature film directed by Merchant, following In Custody and The Proprietor. For most part of his career, Merchant has been raising money for the movies including the Oscar-winner A Room with a View, directed by James Ivory. Ivory has directed most of the movies that Merchant had produced.
Set in the 1950s in Kerala, Cotton Mary is the story of two Anglo-Indian sisters and their intricate relationship with a British family. The film stars Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi and James Wilby. Merchant directed the film, based on a screenplay by a young American, Alexandra Viets.
In a press statement faxed from his office, Merchant defended his work:
"The film is by no means meant to be a naturalistic picture of India or of Anglo-India but rather a paradigm of the effects and after effects of colonialism -- both on the colonized and on the colonizer. It tries to give an impression of what happens when one civilization attempts to impose itself on another."
Merchant added in the statement:
"I might point out that the British characters in the film also suffer a distortion of their characters and their values as a result of being in a country where they do not belong. I regard my film as a protest against any kind of colonialism or imperialism anywhere in the world."
As the interview progressed, Merchant became agitated. His expressed his anger towards several elements of the Indian society, including what he called the guardians of minorities -- journalists -- and the Hindu and Muslim groups that have been vocal against filmmaker Mehta, and actress and social activist Shabana Azmi.
"People have gone berserk and crazy," he said raising his voice. "Why can't they spend time on more constructive things? Why can't the journalists write and say, 'Listen guys, why are you driving the country down?'"
He said with certainty that most of the people critical of the film had not even seen it. At a recent press conference in Bombay, where he was promoting Cotton Mary, Merchant polled the reporters to see how many had seen the film. Only one raised his hand, Merchant said.
Merchant said that no other film in recent times had dealt with the women's issues, including breast-feeding and the depression that follows pregnancy.
"The child in film (Scacchi's baby) is saved by an Anglo-Indian (played by Neena Gupta) who breastfeeds him," he said. "In India a mother or ma is a sacred symbol. And ma gives life to a baby and a human being -- and milk which right from beginning gives sustenance and gives life to a child."
"I wish people would see the film for what it is, instead of making foolish statements against," he said.
Merchant criticized the standards of films that have been made in India in the past 10 years.
"You try to go see a decent film and there is no audience, there are no critics supporting the film," he said.
Prior to the February 25th opening of Cotton Mary in India, the filmmaker organized a festival of seven films from the Merchant-Ivory collection. The program including three films that had never been commercially shown in India -- Jefferson in Paris, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, and The Proprietor.
"No critic, no writer, no editor commented that these were new films that had been released," he said. " They could have said: 'Go see the films, educate yourself.' There were a lot of interviews with me. But it is not the interviews and my photographs that I am interested in. I want my work to be seen."
Despite his frustrations, he said he still had some expectations of journalists.
"Young students and other have to be guided," he said. "And the guiding force is journalism and writing." But despite his bad experiences, Merchant hasn't thrown in the towel.
"I've been working for almost 40 years and I've never been discouraged," he said. "My films are shown everywhere, and India is not a huge market for me. But I can't understand when a film is well made and is sympathetic to its characters, why people don't go and see it instead of criticizing it."
Merchant said still hopes that Indian audiences will begin to appreciate films made by him and Ivory. Recently, a young journalist in India told Merchant that The Householder was the best film that she had seen.
"I was so touched by it," Merchant said. "The Householder was made nearly 40 years ago. I said to myself that if the film can move this 21-year-old girl, we must be doing something right."
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