of a Princess
1975/U.K., 59 minutes
1974 Merchant Ivory made two new films, Autobiography of a Princess
and The Wild Party. Although released after The Wild Party,
Autobiography of a Princess was the first to be filmed. It has an
intriguing history, which Ivory has related in his book Autobiography
of a Princess, a miscellany of commentary and photos of Royal India,
together with the text of Jhabvala's screenplay of the film. As Ivory
explains, Merchant was in India in 1973 putting together material for
a possible documentary that would include archival footage as well as
interviews with descendants of the Maharajas. When he accepted an invitation
from the former Maharaja of Jodhpur, Ivory and Jhabvala went along.
While observing the crew shooting scenes in one of the rooms of the
palace, Ivory began to reflect on "what Bai-ji, the Jodhpur princess,
had told us in her interview about her life here, about going to school
in Switzerland and coming back to Jodhpur, and how everybody had tried
to force her into purdah. Suddenly I thought of the actress Madhur Jaffrey:
what a princess she would make!"
Indian princess (Madhur Jaffrey) long divorced and living in self-enforced
exile in London, invites her father's ex-tutor, Cyril Sahib (James Mason),
to an annual tea party, intended to celebrate a happier past, where
the two watch old movie footage of Royal India.
Princess reviews her memories selectively: she sees their long-vanished,
fun-filled world, dominated by her dazzling father, through a
haze of nostalgia, and she tries to wheedle her guest into writing
a book about it. But Cyril Sahib has a different view both of
their common past and of her father, the Maharaja. He recalls
the ceremonial occasions, the weddings, and funerals, the pig-sticking
expeditions, the pranks and practical jokes with distaste, even
horror at the surfeit and brutality. And he remembers the dashing
Maharaja to his adoring daughter almost a surrogate lover
as manipulative and often cruel, his later years soiled
by a sordid sex scandal in London.
this perfect, tightly written film of memory and character exploration,
James Mason gives one of the finest portrayals of his career,
almost a kind of valedictory performance as the articulate and
self-aware Cyril Sahib. Madhur Jaffrey, a favorite Merchant Ivory
actress, is no less affecting as the imperious but befuddled,
and finally tragically isolated Princess.
Director: James Ivory
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Photography: Walter Lassally
Music: Vic Flick
Editor: Humphrey Dixon
Art director: Jacquemine Charrot-Lodwige
James Mason (Cyril Sahib), Madhur Jaffrey (the Princess), Keith
Varnier (Delivery Man), Diane Fletcher (Seductress), Timothy Bateson
(Blackmailer), Johnny Stuart (Photographer), Nazrul Rahman (Papa).