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'Cotton Mary'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 5, 2000


    'Cotton Mary' Ismail Merchant directs the tale of colonial melodrama. (Artistic License)
In director Ismail Merchant's intriguing and complex drama, set in 1954, Lilly Macintosh (Greta Scacchi), the British mistress of a house in 1950s India, is unable to breastfeed her premature baby, an Anglo-Indian woman named Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), steps in. Lilly is so grateful, she gradually gives Mary modestic control of the house, unaware that Mary's secretly using a crippled wet nurse (also her sister) to feed the child and is squeezing Lilly's faithful servant Abraham (Prayag Raaj) out of a job. There are other issues: Lilly's husband, John (James Wilby), who works for the BBC, is inattentive to his paternal and matrimonial duties; it's inevitable that he'll wander – in this case with Mary's attractive niece, Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey). The colonial melodrama also serves as a fascinating exploration of racial and social prejudice; and an indictment of cultural miscegenation. And Mary, the daughter of an English soldier and an Indian woman, displays the worst aspects of both cultures. Ironically, this moral stand is not dissimilar to D.W. Griffith's racist-epic "The Birth of a Nation." But then again, Cotton Mary is so poisonous in her snobbism, it's hard to see this any other way.

COTTON MARY (R, 124 minutes) – Contains nudity, sexual situations.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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