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The Wandering Company: Merchant-Ivory Productions and Post-Colonial Cinema

 | Director Profile |

  BY Harmanpreet Kaur

Merchant-Ivory is a collaboration of three people from three vastly different cultures: Ismail Merchant, the producer, born in India; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the screenwriter, born in Germany and educated in England; and James Ivory, the director, born in the United States. The diversity of Merchant Ivory’s cultural roots is evident in the range of locations in which their movies have been shot: Delhi, Bombay, and Benares; London, Paris, and Florence; New York, New England, and Texas. They capture a vital sense of place and often lyrical feeling for widely varying periods and landscapes, from Paris in the 1920s and Edwardian England, to nineteenth-century America and British India. 

Ruth Jhabvala’s marriage to the Indian architect CSH Jhabvala, took her from postwar England to post-raj India, and thence to North America. Yet, in her words she says, “Once a refugee, always a refugee.” In her 1979 Neil Gunn fellowship lecture “Disinheritance”, she described herself as a “writer without any ground of being out of which to write: really blown about from country to country, culture to culture, till I feel - till I am – nothing”. “Ruth was postcolonial before the term had been invented,” says British writer Caryl Phillips. “She understood loss of language, land and history in a brutal and visceral way, and reinvented herself, first in the heart of the old empire, then in the cradle of a newly independent country, and now in the centre of the new American empire.” (Jaggi 2005)

With the end of colonialism, and the birth of new nation states, hitherto defined geographically and culturally by their colonial masters, a new challenge emerged in literary theory. What exactly was the nature of this post colonial literary world? “Post-colonial literary theory has begun to deal with the problem of transmuting time into space, with the present struggling out of the past, and, like much recent post-colonial literature, it attempts to construct a future. The post-colonial world is one in which destructive cultural encounter is changing to an aceeptance of difference on equal terms. Both literary theorists and cultural historians are beginning to recognise the cross-culturality as the potential termination point of an apparently endless human history of conquest and annhilation justified by the myth of group ‘purity’, and as a basis on which the post-colonial world can be creatively stabilized.”  (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 2002)

How exactly do the films of Merchant Ivory and Ruth’s screenplays evoke this hybrid post-colonial moment? This paper argues that the company’s films set in India bring out the complex ambivalences of colonialism and post-colonialism through the experiences of Indians and Britons in both pre- and post-independent India, typically through fraught encounters between British women and Indian men. These encounters make immediate the clash between desire and history. In both their production and their content, their films remain models of transnational/cross-cultural/intercultural filmmaking. 

Shakespeare Wallah

Indian Empire, or no Indian Empire; we cannot do without Shakespeare! Indian Empire will go, at any rate, some day, but this Shakespeare does not go, he lasts forever with us. - Thomas Carlyle (Singh 1996: 101)

Merchant Ivory 1

Made in 1965, Shakespeare Wallah put Merchant-Ivory on the international map winning them much critical acclaim. Starring Felicity Kendal, Shashi Kapoor and Madhur Jaffrey (who won the Silver Bear at Berlin for her role) and a musical score by Satyajit Ray, the film’s inspiration lies behind the real-life adventures of Felicity Kendal’s family as a travelling theatre troupe in India during the final days of colonial rule. Playing the Buckingham family, they try to uphold British traditions by staging Shakespeare plays, but are unable to compete with the wildly popular Bombay film industry. Also tracing a developing relationship between the young Lizzie (Kendal) with Sanju (Kapoor) who is a wealthy Indian playboy prince, it tells a romance that is beset with hindrances of race and culture. Jhabvala says in an interview to the Guardian in 2005, “The English company became symbolic for us of the end of the Raj. They wanted to peddle Shakespeare, while Indians were only interested in going to the cinema.” (Jaggi 2005)

The impoverished Indian prince for whom the Buckingham’s perform in the opening scenes of the film says, “Sooner or later, we must all come to terms with reality.” The phrase could be the motto of the film. Reality consists of different things for each character. And each character’s reality is tinged with sadness or nostalgia except for that of the film star and her lover, because their reality is made up of their fictional on screen personas. The prince’s reality is the loss of his fortune: one of his palaces has been converted into office space, and he is thinking of making a hotel of one of the others. The old actor Bobby’s reality is a deserted ballroom and an empty wine-rack. Mr. and Mrs. Buckingham’s reality is the fact that people don’t enjoy Shakespeare and prefer movies, and the school which used to hire them for four or five performances is now too busy with cricket matches. What Lizzie comes to terms with is the reality that her lover Sanju will not accept her sacrifice of herself and her whole way of life. But in each realization lies some solution or at least a way of coming to terms with these realities: the Buckingham’s will go on to do “scenes from Shakespeare”, and Lizzie will travel to England to discover a new life. “The decay of traditions and the failure of hopes, on which the film comments without any fashionable nastiness or cynicism, is implicit in all of the film’s action. But in accepting this decay as reality, however painful, lies a sort of existential triumph for each of the characters.” (Polt 1966-1967)

The initiation of the popularity of Shakespeare itself amongst Indians coincided with the introduction of the discipline of English Literature in India, which became an important part of the educational curriculum post the establishment of universities in Bombay, Bengal and Madras in 1857.  Gauri Vishwanathan argues in Masks of Conquest that the discipline of English Literature was invested with “human and moral attributes” which were again interwined with the “civilising mission” of English Literature. Further as the power of the British was consolidated in the country, education of the natives gained acceptance and approval based on the perception that they could only rule over the natives by co-opting them as the “conduit of western thoughts and ideas”. They attempted to secure the consent of the ruled through moral and intellectual manipulation rather than through military control. Nandi Bhatia further argues that Shakespeare enters a complex relationship with the native intelligentsia that was more or less shaped by colonial politics and served as an icon of British superiority. As a result the fascination with Shakespeare had spread to most urban centres by the late nineteenth century. Parsi and Bengali theatre companies disseminated adaptations that were mainly apolitical and primarily for the purpose of entertainment. “These companies disseminated Shakespeare to a cross-section of the population, which had no access to his works through the educational curriculum or in the elite theatres, bringing, in the process “Shakespeare” into the popular cultural life of the nation. Travelling companies from abroad further secured the iconic place of Shakespeare.” (Bhatia 2004)

The encouragement given to Shakespeare studies and performance in the colonial period filters into postcolonial India through touring companies from Britain and government sponsored agencies. Significant amongst these was Shakespearana that toured a riot-torn India still suffering from the partition of 1947 to perform plays of Shakespeare. Sponsored by agencies like the British Council, these tours were not free of attempts to exercise neocolonial control. In his autobiogrpahy Geofrrey Kendal, the owner of Shakespeareana and playing himself in Shakespeare Wallah recalls, “We had invitations [from the state governments in India] to Hyderabad, Patiala, Gwalior, Travancore, and Cochin; all with state guest houses or hotel accomodation and the promise of assistance with the shows. This was marvellous.”  (Bhatia 2004) Between June 1953 and and December 1956 Kendal’s company gave 879 performances to an audience of royalty, school children, urban middle classes and semiurban masses. While others like Eric Eliot brought his acting troupe to India in 1951 presenting performances of Shakespearean plays including Merchant of Venice, Othello and Hamlet.

In this context, Shakespeare Wallah becomes an important intervention in the dominant discourse surrounding the Shakespeare industry in India. “The declining appeal of Shakespeare in postindependence India proposes a critical re-thinking of the cultural implications of eurocolonialism and its aftermath, the material legacies of imperial histories, and the politics of “high” and “low” culture. Showing the continuing extension of colonial authority via Shakespeare productions, the film historicizes the phenomena of Shakespeare in India, establishing through the figurative death of Shakespeare, the literal death of empire.”  (Bhatia 2004) Bhatia goes on to say that Ismail Merchant’s motivation for making such a film came from his experience of growing up in colonial India. From the beginning nationalist politics and world events influenced his life, the most important being the country’s partition. Thus the film also evokes his sentiment of the inevitability of the British Empire’s departure from India. But being in English language itself, the film is appealing to a Western audience and elite audiences in India.

Thus Shakespeare Wallah becomes a metaphor for the end of the Empire in India. His demise as a cultural icon is further reinforced through the failed relationship between Lizzie and Sanju. Their problems arise out of cross-cultural complications or by Manjula played by Jaffery who has prior romantic claims to Kapoor’s Sanju. But in the end, the two separate. The scene of their brewing romance in a hill town, is symptomatic of their eventual parting, of a fog that first envelops them with passion and then separation. Realising that the new India holds no future for Lizzie, her parents send her back to England especially since she has never been to that country having been born and brought up in India all along. Their unsuccessful love affair becomes a metaphor then of the failure of the two worlds to unite. But here it is the colonised, the native, the character of Sanju who refuses to marry Lizzie. While the former colonialists try their best to embrace the new India, the colonised however cannot respond in the same way.

The film also highlights India’s different demographic compositions and their reception of Shakespeare. This ranges from royalty, to elite schools in hill stations and catcalling hooting spectators during their staging of Romeo and Juliet. This disruption of their performance is representative of their rejection of a foreign ideology in the wake of independence. Their reaction can be placed in opposition to the strict discipline observed by the maharaja during a private performance. It may appear as lack of civility but is the audience’s opposition to a culture that is alien to their own. The loss of colonial authority is also visible in the difference between the hotels that is occupied by the Buckinghams and Sanju, where Sanju’s is more opulent than the other Gleneagles Hotel that is doing poor business. Mrs. Bower, the owner plans to head back to England and says, “You ought to think about it too Carla. There is no place like home. Though we always used to think, this is our home.”

One of the appeals of Shakespeare Wallah, especially in the West was its realism. The depiction of the train journey, the car breakdown, the bazaars and landscapes invoke genuine feelings of riding in an Indian train or even sleeping on charpoys in the open with muslin-cheese covers. The film’s omission of stereotypical portrayals of the land of “spiritual enlightenment” was seen as one of its strengths, as Ivory himself says, “The European characters depicted in Shakespeare Wallah weren’t wound up in the mystic wonder of it all.”  (Bhatia 2004) The realism also flows from the fact that in reality, Shashi Kapoor playing Sanju is married to Jennifer Kendal, Felicity’s elder sister and had met her under similar circumstances while touring with the Kendal’s. Ironically, theirs is not the failed relationship as depicted in the film.

Heat and Dust

Jhabvala won the Booker prize for her eighth novel, Heat and Dust (1975), in which the hippy narrator in 1970s India retraces - and stumblingly replicates - the steps of her grandmother Olivia, an English bride in the 1920s disgraced by an affair with a maharaja. Though it is often read as ‘Raj nostalgia’, Heat and Dust’s theme is largely the psychopathology of power, the process of domination in personal relationships or clashing empires. Like most postcolonial literature, it is concerned with the predicament of an individual in an environment foreign to his acculturation. But it covers both British and post-British India, and in that sense lies somewhere in between colonial and postcolonial writing. Jhabvala’s own position thus becomes a bit complicated. She is a white writer writing about post-independence era from the Indian soil. But seen from her own dislocated position, her choice of subjects, time, space, and the points of view offered by her defy any rigidly particular theoretical choice. Often also seen as a rewriting of E.M Forster’s A Passage to India, it is mixed up with colonial and postcolonial concerns.  The problem of cross-cultural interaction or the Indo-British relationship in this context is one of the major conditions of colonial and postcolonial moment. It is because of the expansion of the empire that direct contact between India and Britain became a historical reality. Heat and Dust records such encounters between them and their relationships.

The major British figures are Douglas Rivers, Mr. Crawfords, Dr. Saunders, Major Minnies and their women folk. The kind of attitude that Douglas has is a typical attitude associated with a “sahib” posted in India. He never has the slightest doubt of his position and authority and his subjects are a “pack of rogues”. The philosophy of colonialism has adversely affected both India and the Britishers in India. Interestingly the British do not seem to be aware of this reality and are all busy managing their estate in full confidence. The sense of superiority is the common factor that binds them all, except Olivia and to some extent Major Minnies.

But Jhabvala does disregard depicting the Indian political scene at the time and the theme of resistance. There are passing references to the Indian Mutiny but nowhere else has the existence of Indian people as a whole and their reactions to the Raj been duly touched upon. “India between 1919 and 1923 was a turbulent place for the British, in no way safe for Mrs. Crawford’s plan for holidaying [in Simla]. Surprisingly if she wanted to go back to England, it was for the Indian heat and dust and for the unruly servants; not for political reasons. This is almost unrealistic.”  (Shihan, 61) Thus the silence of the narrative on political movements like Civil Disobedience or Khilafat make it a colonial point of view and less so post-colonial.

The second part of the story brings in a white woman again and depicts her reverse navigation in post-independent India. Civil Lines, the British residential area does not exist anymore and the Government has taken over the imperial buildings and converted them into Government offices. Through these old offices, old bureaucratic practices and the English language – the traces of the Raj linger on. The narrator, a British lady does not mind wearing Indian clothes or eating Indian food. She learns Hindi unlike her Grandfather Douglas who learns it purely for imperial reasons and represents a post-war British generation. Her contact with India and experiences shed light on India’s postcolonial reality such as human suffering and corruption. Dr. Gopal says, “You see our problem. There has been no addition to the hospital for over twenty years. We don’t have beds. We don’t have staff or equipment.” A newly independent nation’s struggles are thus expressed in the novel and the film.

The frustrations and aspirations of displaced Europeans occurs in Jhabvala’s novels and screenplays. The narrator in Heat and Dust finds in Indian social life a sense of belonging, a kind which could be alien to European life. A kind of spiritual awareness is also responsible for her decision to stay in India. She says, “that many of us are tired of the materialism of the West, and even if we have no particular attraction towards the spiritual message of the East, we come here in the hope of finding a simpler and more natural way of life.” Jhabvala’s hippies in Heat and Dust like Chid are cultural products of post-war Western society. Many of them fail to achieve anything but their cultural and physical migration is a reality. This reverse navigation maybe thin in volume, but represents the Europeans and Americans negotiating an alternative way of life.

There is an attempt on the part of the narrator in Heat and Dust to redeem the dichotomies that once operated in the colonial world. The narrator’s diary tells of her attempt to come to terms with Indian culture. Her wish to merge into the native’s world overtakes her narration which can be called a ‘symbolic’ story. From the time of her arrival in India, she seeks to confront stereotypes with reality: “All those memories I’ve read, all those prints I’ve seen. I really must forget about them.” The process of mimicry she experiences will be different from the one that her counterpart, Olivia has experienced. At the end she does not have an abortion. “Since her baby, like Olivia’s, could have either an Indian or an English father (she doesn’t know who her real father is), she is both symbolically and literally opening the door to hybridity.” (Breto 2002: 209) In a way, the story predicts globalization of culture and the possibility of a multicultural reality.

The depiction of love and sex also goes beyond the usual geographical and cultural boundaries. The two British women, Olivia and the narrator are attracted to Indian spirituality and sexuality in their own times. The relationship between Olivia and Douglas shifts to Olivia-Nawab, while that of the narrator with Inder Lal. The so-called sensuality of India and the sexuality of the Nawab makes Olivia venture out of the recommended codes of conduct in both the societies. The same incident repeating fifty years later in the life of the narrator is again significant. Both cases are personal choices and do not abide by prevalent social norms of their respective times. This clash between codes of conduct and individual aspiration lies in the lifestyle of the characters. While Olivia is more or less bored with her lifestyle in the Civil Lines coupled with the Indian heat and dust that suffocate her geographically and culturally. Her individual self desires go against the British imperialist designs. The Nawab’s position is no different. He is frustrated with the British restrictions on his power and income and by carrying on a relationship with Olivia, he finds emotional release and vengeance against the British by seducing a white woman. In the narrator’s case too, she finds traditional restrictions a hindrance to her movements. She lives alone, far from home and find Indians friendly and their way of life fulfilling. She is also determined to explore what happened to Olivia by living under similar circumstances. “However the western notion of Indian sexuality itself is perverted; so is the Indian notion of the western sexuality.”  (Shihan, 70)

Thus these hybrid emotional attachments lie in a complex space of sexual gratification, boredom and traces of genuine intimacy. The attraction to a physically stereotyped native is wholly sexual and Olivia’s mimicry is caused by her situation as a powerless subject in the society she inhabits wherein the English wife’s command lies solely over the Indian servants. In the end, she chooses to wear Indian clothes, abandon her husband and elope with the Nawab. “Olivia’s mimcry can only be excused because of the incompleteness to which her society condemns her. Her ‘imaginary romance’ does not depict any interaction between native and non-native that goes beyond pure sexual drive, nor does the fact that she elopes in the end mean any transgression of the manichaeistic colonial ideology.”  (Breto 2002: 212) The only thing we know at the end is that Olivia lived the rest of her life in isolation in the mountains. Shashi Kapoor as the Indian Nawab is also in many ways westernised. He moves within a wide space, between the English and the Indians, that he fills with mimcry and stands out as a lonely figure. Unable to find his own place in the colonial society, he recovers his powerlessness by seducing Olivia. Possesion of the white woman is his only way to keep a role in the colonial scene, where he no longer recieves a coherent image of himself.  (Fanon 1986) Towards the end, his manliness too has changed to the point that “there is something womanly about him”. This change empathizes his own disposession with the powerlessnes of the white women in the colonial sphere.

Bombay Talkie

Merchant Ivory3

The 1970 film Bombay Talkie takes us back into similar themes raised by Shakespeare Wallah. Here again a British lady, a writer played by Jennifer Kendal comes to India and falls in love with an Indian Bollywood actor played by Shashi Kapoor. Here too, both of them digress from their social norms to carry on an affair despite Kapoor being a married man. There are many aspects related to Bollywood that are interesting to note in the postcolonial context. The staging of a song in the beginning with Shashi Kapoor and a Bollywood actress in a European setting reflects a typical trope employed by Bollywood filmmakers since the 60’s that continues till today. Utpal Dutt’s character – a pornographic filmmaker called Bhavan Bose requests Kapoor to make a film with him. He notices that “all these foreign magazines and film” contain “human body in all its aspects”. He wants to know why Kapoor won’t act in a film like that when “in the past we were in the forefront.” Kendal on the other hand, like Olivia in Heat and Dust finds the native man sexually attractive. She finds Bollywood actors “heroic and vigorous” and comes up with a storyline to convert into a movie where a Hollywood actress who is rich but unhappy falls in love with a handsome Indian maharaja. The Taj Mahal Hotel where she stays in Mumbai is not just a location but also a character unto itself in the film and represents a colonial legacy.

The film also represents the lack of understanding of native customs by foreigners. When Kendal returns from Kapoor’s house after being thrown out by his wife for producing an expensive watch as a Rakhi gift, she says, “It’s not my fault if I don’t know your bloody customs.” Kapoor though being western in his dress and living habits and even playing a ‘cowboy’ like hero in his films is still rooted in traditional myths and practices. He still wants a son because “Hindus want sons to light their pyre.” Kendal’s character turns towards spirituality by enrolling in an ashram with comical consequences. She is unable to meditate or manage her saree. Like her many tumultuous affairs and weddings before, in the end her attraction towards Kapoor also ends in failure. Again like Heat and Dust this is a relationship based solely on sexual attraction – of the Other. However, the representation of both the Indian and the American is stereotypical. But in creating these characters, Jhabvala is also making a comment on the nature of both the races in a humorous way.

Rootless Wanderings

The films of Merchant-Ivory set in India through their rich cinematography and tight screenplays by Jhabvala make India look enticing. It is rich with sensousness and is almost an India of snake-charmers but at the same time avoiding the stereotype. In “Myself in India”, an essay from the 1970s, Jhabvala wrote: “My husband is Indian and so are my children. I am not, and less so every year.” Later she wrote of a struggle “to keep my own personality and not become immersed, drowned in India”. She says: “First, I was so dazzled and besotted by India. People said the poverty was biblical, and I'm afraid that was my attitude too. It's terribly easy to get used to someone else's poverty if you're living a middle-class life in it. But after a while I saw it wasn't possible to accept it, and I also didn't want to.”  Yet for Bryan Cheyette, professor of 20th-century literature at Southampton University, Jhabvala is “never quite a westerner. She embraced English innocence and the literary tradition of Austen and Forster as a way of trying to transcend trauma. But her fiction looks at that attempt ironically, with a cold eye. Even the move to India is a way of escaping the history and trauma of Europe, but the search for transcendence and redemption never works for her characters or herself.” (Jaggi 2005)

This search for transcendence of cultures does not work in Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie nor Heat and Dust. The reality of hybrid cultures and its underlying problems make up Jhabvala’s fictional world while her own personal rootlessness has now transformed into a more common condition.


1.While there was intense debate about whether Indians should receive an education in English or in classical Indian languages, such as Sanskrit or Arabic, the cause of English literature won the day, with the passage of the Indian Education Act 1835. (Singh 1996: 103)

2.A similar theme emerges in Bombay Talkie with Kendal attracted to Kapoor’s sexuality. BIBLIOGRAPHY Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. "The Empire Writes Back." 35. NY: Routledge , 2002. Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1996. Bhatia, Nandi. "Multiple Mediations of "Shakespeare"." In Acts of Authority, Acts of Resistance: Theatre and Politics in Colonial and Postcolonial India , by Nandi Bhatia, 55. University of Michigan, 2004. Breto, Isabel Alonso. "Manichaeism and Mimicry in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust." In Missions of Interdependence, by Gerhard Stilz. Rodopi, 2002. Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto, 1986. Bombay Talkie. Directed by James Ivory. 1970. Heat and Dust. Directed by James Ivory. 1983. Shakespeare Wallah. Directed by James Ivory. 1965. Jaggi, Maya. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2005/mar/19/books.featuresreviews (accessed November 26, 2010). Polt, Harriet. "Review." Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 2 , 1966-1967: 33-35. Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage, 1979. Shihan, I H. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (The Atlantic Critical Studies). Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2006. Singh, Jyotsna G. Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues. London & New York: Routledge, 1996.