The genesis of the company's next feature film, Savages, goes back to 1970. In an article in the Autumn 1971 issue of the British film journal Sight and Sound, Ivory relates that he came across a Colonial Revival mansion in Scarborough, forty minutes north of New York City, that had intrigued him. Called Beechwood, it belonged to the Vanderlip family, Midwesterners who derived their wealth from railroads and flourished in the earlier part of the century. But by the time Ivory happened onto it, the elder Vanderlip had died, his children had married and moved away, and only a grandson and great grandson still lived, or camped, there. "My accidental discovery of Beechwood," he writes, "led me to the making of Savages, though at the time -- November, 1970 -- I couldn't have described what sort of film I wanted to shoot in it. There was something a bit unearthly in the ambiance of Beechwood, something poetic, which made it unlike other houses of the kind I'd seen in America, and this strangeness made me think sometimes of a kind of Hudson River Last Year at Marienbad." An influence on the film was Buñvel's Exterminating Angel, with it's trapped party guests gradually reverting to barbarity.
Savages begins with intertitled black-and-white sequences that look like the southern sequel to Nanook of the North, doing us the anthropological service of chronicling the "Mud People," forest dwellers who spend their time hunting, gathering, and engaging in the odd lascivious poke. Their prelapsarian noblesse sauvage is through, however, when a croquet ball - " a perfect sphere unknown in the forest" - lands in their midst like some stray apple falling off the forbidden tree. The tribe follows the sphere to its source, a lavish deserted mansion, and the film takes on color as the savages take on culture and "civilization" in a twenty-four hour period.
In a rapid evolution from the Stone Age to the Jazz Age, the "savages" exchange their ritual masks for the evening clothes of the 1920s and 30s, and engage in one of the first trademark Merchant Ivory dinner parties, where the guests exchange pleasantries and venom, and make a new art of the non sequitur ("Do you know the derivation of the term bric-a-brac?"). The film is based on an idea of James Ivory's, with a screenplay by George Swift Trow and Michael O'Donoghue, written from an outline they had published in the Paris Review: the dialogue both revels in the ridiculous (the primitive priestess-turned-society hostess Carlotta instructs her guests in the arts of divination using fruit) and then bites into social politics ("Tropical fruit is a bit course, I find," she sniffs at her Indian maid).
The performances (particularly those of Anne Francine as Carlotta, Neil Fitzgerald as Sir Harry, and Margaret Brewster as Lady Cora) maintain a perfectly pitched ensemble deadpan - no one seems to notice, particularly, that the man making small talk about African queens is wearing a dress - and immerse us in something of an absurdist comedy of manners. It is all strangely kooky, artfully sophisticated, and weirdly engaging.
In 1961, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory paid a visit to the German-born novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, then living in Delhi, with a proposal to make a film of her novel The Householder. Jhabvala agreed. She wrote the screenplay for the film herself, in ten days, and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala partnership was inaugurated.
Filmed entirely on location in Delhi, The Householder is a comedy that revolves around Prem (Shashi Kapoor), a young teacher at a boys' college who has been married to the beautiful but retiring Indu (Leela Naidu). Little more than a boy himself, at least in the face of his imperious, impossible mother (Durga Khote), Prem struggles with the burden of his responsibilites as a husband and, when Indu becomes pregnant, with his impending duties as a father. Prem's fumbling and his mother's constant belittling become too much for Indu to bear, and she leaves her husband to return to her family home. Left alone with his mother (who delights in her newfound umbilical arrangement), Prem seeks enlightenment from an older married man, from a swami, and from Westerners who have come to India with orientalist illusions and Silk Road naivété. Only then, in Indu's absence, does Prem fall in love with his wife.
Kapoor and Naidu anchor the film with their genuineness as young innocents coming into conflict with tradition; Khote is relentlessly effective as the orthodox Hindu matriarch who never loses an opportunity to recite her own martyrology or criticize her daughter-in-law's housekeeping. The film is a satire and social commentary, but it has also become a historical document of sorts, a record of a now vanished India captured at the moment just before the disappearance of traditional urban middle and upper-middle class life.
The Indian master-director Satyajit Ray was a major influence on The Householder(Ray himself supervised the music and re-cut the film for Merchant and Ivory). His legendary cameraman, Subatra Mitra, was the director of photography, and the film is infused with the fluid, restrained lyricism that characterizes Ray's work - though in its rhythms and its characters The Householder announces a style of Ivory's own. In these characters - people struggling with a changing society - are hints of some Merchant Ivory personae who will later emerge on other continents: through Prem and Indu we glimpse those rarely-explored places between education and adulthood that are the territory of Henry James; in Prem's mother we see the Forsterian doyenne-tyrant; and throughout The Householder we are brought to that space between cultures that would be the province of later Merchant Ivory films from Shakespeare Wallah(1965) to A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries(1998).
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