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March 28 - 30

The Wandering Company: Merchant Ivory Productions in India

Although the name "Merchant Ivory" typically conjures up skillful adaptations of canonical novels by E.M. Forster and Henry James, the company established its reputation for striking and intelligent filmmaking with a string of titles shot in India. And, in fact, it is India that brought together Merchant Ivory's three main partners: director James Ivory, producer (and sometime director) Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

American-born James Ivory (b. 1928) was a recent graduate of the film school of the University of Southern California when he made a short film of Indian miniature paintings, The Sword and the Flute (1959), which immediately caught the attention of Ismail Merchant (1936-2005), a young man from Mumbai living in New York and eager to make movies himself. The two formed a partnership and, for their first collaboration, contacted writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (b. 1927). Born in Germany to Jewish parents, Jhabvala grew up in London before moving to New Delhi in 1951.

The three continued to make films together until Merchant's death in 2005, with Ivory and Jhabvala's latest collaboration, The City of Your Final Destination, scheduled to open in theaters this spring. One other important contributor to the Indian films of Merchant Ivory is the actor Shashi Kapoor, a member of one of the dynastic families of the Indian film industry. (Kapoor's older brother was legendary actor-director Raj Kapoor.) After a few roles as a juvenile, Shashi Kapoor became a star in India in the early 1960s. His roles in the Merchant-Ivory films gave him an international profile.

Again and again in these films, the complex and dangerous ambivalences of colonialism and post-colonialism are explored through the experiences of Indians and Britons in both pre- and post-independence India, typically through fraught encounters between British women and Indian men. These encounters make personal and immediate the clash between desire and history. In both their production and their content, the films in this program remain models of transnational, cross-cultural filmmaking from a time before those words were fashionable. To pay tribute to this lesser-known chapter of his remarkable career, the HFA welcomes James Ivory for two evenings to discuss the work and world of Merchant Ivory.

Special thanks to Estelle Eonnet. Special support provided by the Academy Foundation of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Friday March 28 at 7pm

The Householder

Directed by James Ivory, Appearing in Person
With Shashi Kapoor, Leela Naidu, Durga Khote
India 1963, 35mm, b/w, 101 min.
Hindi with English subtitles

To cheer up a friend trapped in an arranged marriage, young Prem recounts his own story, as he and the film look back at his first year of marriage. Confronted by a wife he barely knows, and who refuses to play a submissive role, Prem turns for advice to friends and to his prying mother, with varying degrees of success. Adapted by Jhabvala from her fourth novel, The Householder follows two young people coming to know one another after they have been thrust into intimacy. Ivory and Jhabvala masterfully modulate between drama, satire and irony. Shashi Kapoor is convincing as the put-upon Prem, while Leela Naidu delights as his strongwilled wife.

Autobiography of a Princess

Directed by James Ivory, Appearing in Person
With Madhur Jaffrey, James Mason
UK 1975, 35mm, color, 59 min.

This remarkable and rarely seen film mixes actual newsreel footage of the lives of the Indian maharajas with a fictional reunion between the daughter of a maharaja and her father's secretary. In the course of an hour-long conversation, the secretary's memories of cruelty and stultifying privilege confront the daughter's idealized image of her childhood and her father. The film became a favorite of both Ivory's and Jhabvala's, the latter using the project to prepare ideas that would recur in Heat and Dust.

audio from evening Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Saturday March 29 at 7pm

Heat and Dust

Directed by James Ivory, Appearing in Person
With Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, Shashi Kapoor
UK/India 1983, 35mm, color, 130 min.

The ambivalences of British-Indian relations, both public and private, are dramatized in the experiences of two women whose lives run in parallel lines in Heat and Dust. In her first major role, Greta Scacchi plays a married young Englishwoman in a small Indian town in the 1920s who finds herself fascinated by the charismatic local ruler. Julie Christie plays this woman's modern-day great-niece who returns to contemporary India to research the scandal her great-aunt provoked.

audio from evening Listen to this evening's introduction, discussion and Q&A.

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Sunday March 30 at 3pm

Shakespeare Wallah

Directed by James Ivory.
With Shashi Kapoor, Geoffrey Kendal
India 1965, 35mm, b/w, 125 min.

A traveling troupe of players, headed by the Buckinghams, a married couple of British Shakespearean actors, tours India performing in the years just after independence. Eager to adapt to the newly formed and still-evolving nation, the Buckinghams are nevertheless forced to confront their increasing irrelevance. Meanwhile, their daughter falls for a wealthy young Indian, who is in turn the lover of one of the new stars of the rising Indian film industry. Out of this roundelay, Shakespeare Wallah fashions a bittersweet account of the frictions at the hinges between "East" and "West," and between "high art" and "popular culture."

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Sunday March 30 at 7pm

In Custody

Directed by Ismail Merchant. Introduced by James Ivory.
With Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri
UK/India 1993, 35mm, color, 126 min.
Hindi and Urdu with English subtitles

While best known as the producer for Merchant Ivory Films, Ismail
Merchant was also an accomplished director, and In Custody is one of his best-received films. An ode to the great tradition of Urdu poetry, In Custody marks a return to the screen for Shashi Kapoor, paired with another great Indian actor, Om Puri. Puri plays Deven, a linguistics professor hired to interview the reclusive poet Nur. Deven is disheartened to find the great man a huge, shambling wreck, surrounded by sycophants who care only for Nur's fame and money, not his poetry. No longer the dashing young man of the earlier Merchant Ivory films, Kapoor gives a fearless performance as the corpulent, dissolute poet.

audio from evening Listen to this evening's introduction.

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Sunday March 30 at 9:30pm

Bombay Talkie

Directed by James Ivory.
With Shashi Kapoor, Jennifer Kendal
India 1970, 35mm, color, 105 min.

Lucia Lane is a successful British novelist living in the US. She arrives in Mumbai to witness the production of a film based on one of her books. Lonely and vulnerable, she feels an instant attraction to the handsome leading man in the film. The actor himself is an excellent example of many Indian protagonists in the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films: both charismatic and troubling. Despite being married, he responds to Lane's advances. The result is a Chekhovian tragicomedy about flawed and ruined figures who are nevertheless instantly recognizable.

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