A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Ismail Merchant's "Cotton Mary" centers on the stories of two women: an Anglo-Indian who wants to be white, and a white British woman who wants to brood and sulk and be left alone. We don't like either character but what we can't understand is the British woman's sullen passivity and indifference to her household; a faithful servant is fired, her husband has an affair, a crazy woman takes charge of her new baby, and she hardly seems to notice. The film wants to make larger points, but succeeds only in being a story of derangement.
The British Raj shut down in 1947 and Indians took over their own country for the first time in centuries. But many people of British descent, born there, considered it home and stayed after independence. The best portrait of that time I've read is Paul Scott's Staying On , the novel that followed his masterful Raj Quartet . "Cotton Mary" is like a lurid reduction of material set in a similar time and place without the human insights--either in the story, or between the characters.
As the story opens, a British woman named Lily (Greta Scacchi) has given birth but has no milk. Mary (Madhur Jaffrey), a nurse at the hospital, takes the sickly child to her sister Blossom (Neena Gupta), who lives in a poorhouse and serves as a wet nurse. Lily hardly seems to notice. When she finally asks, "Mary, how do you feed the baby?" and is told, "Mother's milk, madam," that seems to satisfy her. She is maddeningly incurious.
Mary insinuates herself into the household, which is run by the aged family servant Abraham (Prayag Raaj). Soon she plots to persuade Lily to fire Abraham (who can clearly see Mary is mad) and replace him with her own candidate, the cousin of a cousin.