Umbrellas in the sun protect the Anglo-Indian characters in Cotton Mary from “unsightly” darkening. Ismail Merchant (one half of Merchant-Ivory Productions) has gone solo for this tale set in India a few years after independence and focusing on the lingering ghosts of colonial rule. Lily (Greta Scacchi), a British woman living on her family’s estate in southern India, gives birth prematurely in a former British hospital while her journalist husband (James Wilby) is away on assignment. Distraught and unable to breast-feed, she turns to Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), an Anglo-Indian nurse who promises that “God will feed the child.”
“God,” as it turns out, is Mary’s crippled sister, Blossom, a wet nurse who lives in a nearby alms-house. Mary brings her the baby for secret feedings, and introduces her beautiful niece (Sakina Jaffrey) into Lily’s household. Meanwhile, Mary’s obsession with whiteness and the lives of her masters threatens to spin out of control.
Merchant’s filmmaking is at times wooden and conventional, but Cotton Mary is brought to life by the weirdness of its subject matter and the risks Madhur Jaffrey takes in her brilliant performance. Almost all the characters, from Mary to Lily to Blossom, are disoriented by the new social relations of an independent India; each lives in a dreamworld where she builds a shrine to Englishness. Lily withdraws from her children and philandering husband, cultivating her garden with roses and delphiniums; Blossom yearns for recognition from the madam, which never comes to her. Mary emerges as a tragic figure of racial longing, by turns servile, wild, and terrifyingly knowing—maniacally preoccupied with a social hierarchy that is falling to pieces, and where her place was never really secure or comfortable. And at the center of all this turmoil is that most complex and yet most simple relation, when one body takes nourishment from another.