Thank you, MUBI, for this find! As a fan of Merchant-Ivory films, it was nice to discover this since I hadn’t heard of this film before. The film is only an hour long, but it has so many layers presented in its short time that leave a sweet, if not conflicted, taste in your mouth.
In the 1970s, a Rajasthani Princess who lives in London meets up with the former English tutor of her father, a King of Rajasthan. The two watch films of the old days and converse and reminisce about the life of royalty during the time the British Raj was still in place.
James Ivory directed this film, and his partner Ismail Merchant produced it. Having been only able to see their period dramas, this then-contemporary film, with a sharper eye towards India and its politics, was indeed something new. Set inside a comfortable, well-furnished living room, surrounded by luxury and memory, there is a warmth of a connection between a man who found his home in India and a Princess who has found freedom in London.
There is something aching to historical preservation about this movie as we see the documentary and actual footage during the time of the Raj. These two people are so wholly oppositely reminiscent of the same things, though with different eyes. The screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala keeps its eye sharp on the undertones, so there is a good amount of salt to go around once you hear the dialogue. She was a regular writer with Merchant-Ivory, writing the screenplays for their classics, and here she keeps the sweet and salt even-handed, with both the splendor of the privileged, but not without comment.
The Princess looks at everything with the adoration of someone who has grown up in privilege and acts very much like someone who saw nothing wrong in how her father rules since he was very progressive, with only the Brahim priests and orthodox members of the court holding him back. He made sure she had an education, during the past, she would have been kept in purdah (isolation) in the women’s quarters, never to be seen. The Tutor has a more detailed view, as he saw the older dancing girls, wondering where they would end up, and merely got a cruel joke and a laugh as an answer from the King. Not everything about the monarchy in these states was sweet, not all British were evil (though they were all colonizers one way or another, let’s be clear here), and in this modern world (the 1970s) that is post-colonization, post-independence, there is the question if it is best to leave them in the past.
The film was made when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi began to enact reforms that would have made the lives of the royals difficult. They lost their allowance, privileges, and these special things that separated them from the rest of the population. Some are mad at the loss of the allowance, while others see it as a good thing since it will break barriers and they will be able to be with ordinary people more. The film makes it clear that the time for these people is passed by is merely a nostalgic memory tainted with privilege. They are so privileged they cannot see the reality.
Our Rajasthani Princess is the charming, classy and utterly captivating Madhur Jaffrey who, dressed in her light blue blouse and sari, flutters like a butterfly inside the cage of her home, speaking kind words but then, later on, complains about the Indian servants who want freedom from serving her to start their own life in London. We fall in love with her, but it is clear she lives in her own world.
James Mason, as the Tutor, makes him a man with conflicted feelings. He fell in love with India and is even writing a book about the British leader of Orissa, who enacted reforms that made it one of the most progressive states, but he also felt strange there as the rituals blended together in his mind. He was an outsider in more ways than one; as his voice softens when he speaks about the King, remembering his many jokes, there are definite undertones of homosexuality in him.
For a movie that is less than an hour long, there is a lot to ponder afterward. It presents its argument by the way the documentary footage and these two people, talking, remembering a time long gone. They are antiques in this modern world, always looking to the past to have some meaning for their lives.
In the true Merchant-Ivory tradition, this film brings out the hard truths of society laced with satire but not bitterness. You can sip your tea, listen to the stories, and see the footage of the extraordinary lives of these kings and colonizers, but the aftertaste makes it clear that even if it is in the past, there is a reason it is there.
Thank you for reading!
2 thoughts on “Autobiography of a Princess (1975) – Reminisces on The Raj”
I’m surprised that I haven’t even heard of this one! Sounds like there are some thematic continuities with “Heat and Dust.”