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Made for British television by the correctly esteemed Merchant/Ivory partnership, with an expected well-wrought screenplay from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this short (one hour) film is essentially a chamber piece for two characters, shot primarily within a single room of a London town house, but the subject is an India that is no more, yet still appears to be real to a viewer of this carefully organized and well detailed production. Madhur Jaffrey plays as an Indian Princess who arranges for Cyril Sahib (James Mason), tutor of her late father, to meet with her in her English home to commemorate the anniversary of her father's death, and to reminisce at tea that which her selective memory considers as a golden Colonial past. They accomplish this through 16mm. films that she possesses (featuring actual footage of the erstwhile Princely States of Jodhpur, Jaipur, and Bikaner) and, when not viewing, they discuss their shared memories, although it soon becomes apparent that Cyril is not utilizing the same rose-tinted lenses as is his hostess, and has not remotely her tolerance of pig sticking, big game hunting and other leisure sports enjoyed at her father's court. For it appears that, in Cyril's version of their historical discussion of her father, that the Maharajah had in fact a demoralizing influence upon the Englishman due to an aimless and sybaritic lifestyle provided by the Crown to Colonial Royalty and its minions, so that despite, and because of, his acceptance of a high level of personal comfort, Cyril's ambition to become an author had faded entirely. In spite of these clear differences of opinion concerning merits of Royal privilege, the Princess presses Cyril to halt his current writing project to take on the task of being biographer to her late father, she believing that the potentate's former influence over him will supersede Cyril's current authorial aims. The film's concept was created following a journey to India by producer Ismail Merchant, who had travelled to his native land as means of developing a documentary project focusing upon descendants of Maharajahs, to include extensive interviews with these latter that, although rather undramatic in themselves, comprise a crucial segment of an attempt by the Princess at establishing a historical reconstruction of her father's life, to be garnished with her own romantic standards. Both Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud were considered for the role of Cyril Sahib, but were found to be unsuitable, whereas Mason, Merchant's choice, desired the part, and is well cast for this somewhat lesser known entry by the Merchant/Ivory tandem. Although Mason has top billing, the film is dominated by Jaffrey's playing, her character strongly written with no obvious artifice in her depiction of a woman desperately wanting to record a past that is patently open to interpretation by others. Jaffrey's adjustments to her saree during the opening scene are fascinating and her timing is perfect throughout, under the strong direction of Ivory, in a minimalist setting. A wrong note is struck with a poorly done dramatised sequence relating of a sex scandal involving the Maharajah and blackmailers, but the work eventually recovers.
On the face of it, this film, an early effort from the Merchant-Ivory
team, does not sound that interesting. Madhur Jaffrey plays an Indian
princess exiled from her homeland and living in a London flat, where
she plays hostess once a year to her late father's secretary, Cyril
Together they reminisce about the past and watch old films of the height of the Royal India and the days of the Raj. It is the use of this documentary film which makes 'Autobiography of a Princess' interesting. The characters themselves, the Princess and the secretary, both have their own ingrained prejudices and recollections, and neither really gain our sympathy.
However, the acting from both Jaffrey and Mason is outstanding and these characters really do live on the screen, warts and all.
The plot is in the tradition of "Hindoo Holiday": a young Englishman
undone in life by his love for the Maharajah who indulges, teases &
dominates him. But the acting is so sublime. Both Jaffrey & Mason are
subtle & suggestive in their every move, word, pause, gesture. Every
breath has more impact than a car chase. This is a movie worth seeing
again & again. And it should be shown in every acting class in the
I'm really glad Madhur Jaffrey became a great cookbook author, but she is a sublime actress who was born at a time that did not allow her to have the parts that should have made her an international star.
I found this short film by Merchant-Ivory to be quite interesting. While it's not abounding with action and is basically a slow two-person film, it explores the sense of entitlement and cluelessness among the ruling elite of pre-independence India. The film consists of an ex-princess living in a London flat (Madhur Jaffrey) having a quiet reunion dinner with her dead father's old secretary (James Mason) on the birthday of her father. Mostly, Mason is rather subdued and quiet as the Jaffrey talks and talks. Then, after the pleasantries, she shows him old film of her father and discusses his life and legacy. For the most part, the princess is REALLY clueless and whines a bit about how sad it is times have changed--not acknowledging the widespread poverty and inequity of the old system. In a land of hunger and privation, you see the old ruler on hunting expeditions and playing polo. And, in a few sick cases, folks died serving him and Jaffrey lives under the illusion that he was good to 'his people'. Fascinating and ample proof that an autocratic system is morally bankrupt and clueless--insisting that within their hearts, the Indian people STILL love them (despite having driven them from the country!). A fascinating little portrait but clearly not a film for everyone.
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