Cotton Mary (1999)




Director:  Ismail Merchant, Madhur Jeffrey. 

Starring:  Greta Scacchi (Lily MacIntosh), Madhur Jaffrey (Cotton Mary), James Wilby (John MacIntosh), Sarah Badel (Mrs Evans), Riju Bajaj (Mugs), Gerson Da Cunha (Doctor Correa), Joanna David (Mrs Smythe), Neena Gupta (Blossom, Mary's sister), Sakina Jaffrey (Rosie), Gemma Jones (Mrs Freda Davids), Firdausi Jussawalla (Mr. Panamal), Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal (Matron), Nadira (Mattie), Prayag Raj (Abraham), Captain Raju (Inspector Ramiji Raj).

 racism and its effects in post-colonial India


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

1954.  Malabar Coast (southwest coast of India).  After India is free of control by the British.  Rosie and her Aunt Cotton Mary are two Indian nurses at the Lady Wellington Hospital.  Mary says she had a dream about a white baby.  John and Lily MacIntosh, British subjects, live in India with their daughter Laloo (aka, Theresa).  Lily is very pregnant.  She has a servant named Abraham.  Rosie and Auntie stop at the church to say a prayer.  There an admirer of Rosie, the rector's son Mugs, tosses a rose at her.  Auntie frowns, but Rosie smiles.  Rosie uses her make-up mirror to look behind her.  Auntie scolds her for not paying attention to prayer. 

Lily calls for Abraham.  The baby is on its way.  Abraham tries to telephone, but the lines are down.  He sends Laloo running to the hospital.  Laloo runs.  When Lily arrives in a car at the hospital, part of the staff receives her quickly, placing her is a wheel chair.  Auntie and Rosie are there after the baby is born to care for it.  Mrs. MacIntosh has no milk for the baby.  Mary tells Mrs. MacIntosh that this is God's child send to teach Madam love.  She also says that she herself is half-English, Anglo-Indian.  She chases out the other four nurses in the room. 

Rosie wants to go home to a party, but the head nurse tells her to take Laloo home.  Rosie pleads to the matron to get another nurse, but matron won't budge.  Cotton Mary takes extra-special care of Lily.  Laloo goes with Rosie, but Rosie goes to her own home first, to change into her party clothes.  Then she tells Laloo to sit on the steps of her building and watch the festival in the streets, while she goes to find a friend.  Laloo wants to go with her, but Rosie insists she stay put.  She quickly finds the rector's son. 

The nurses all try to help Lily feed her baby girl, but she cannot.  The matron sends a nurse to get the doctor.  Laloo gets bored and starts to look for Rosie in the streets. 

In desperation, Lily asks Cotton Mary to please help her.  Mary says she will feed the baby and look after her.  Mary takes a boat out to an almshouse where her sister Blossom lives.  Blossom has to use a wheel chair to get around.  The one thing that Blossom does have is breast milk for the child. The feeding is successful and Mary brings the baby back to Lily in the morning.  Lily wants to know how Mary fed the baby, but the Anglo-Indian only says that they have their ways and Madam must trust her

Father/husband finally arrives.  Mary takes the baby and Theresa out of the room so husband and wife can have some private time.  Lily is worried that the child is not well.  The doctor says the baby is not fully developed, that she can't process her food properly.  John fails to see how upset his wife is and is soon running off.  Lily cries.  Mary comes in and holds Lily, saying she will look after Madam.  Lily tells Cotton Mary to come home with them.  Mary quickly agrees. 

Mary brings the baby to Blossom, who seems very exhausted.  Blossom says she can't feed the baby, but Mary starts talking about how she is going to go home with the English family, live with them and take care of the baby.  The idea of Mary being in an English home really impresses Blossom.  Cheered up, now she will feed the baby.  

Mary packs up Madam's clothes.  She sees Madam's fancy shoes and decides to wear them.  This puts a little liveliness in her step. 

Mary is driven in a fancy car to Madam's house.  The home is more like a small mansion than a house.  In the home the next morning, Lily scolds Mary for going off without telling her.  Mary hears Madam tell her husband that the doctor says that the baby may have to go back to the hospital if she does not gain some weight.  John is totally preoccupied with himself and his work.  Lily is upset when he has to leave to go off to some tea plantation where the owner was killed by his own workers. 

In the larder, Mary takes some of the finer things, such as a sweetly scented soap bar.  Abraham sees her take it.  Mary sees that Abraham has the keys to the larder and Abraham tells her this is because he is Madam 's right-hand man.  It's obvious that Mary wants to supplant Abraham as the person who sits at the right hand of Madam. 

John MacIntosh works for the BBC World Service, Delhi Bureau.  At the tea plantation he speaks with Inspector Raj.  He learns from the inspector that the union is making some inroads in recruiting the tea workers.  The workers are hostile to Raj, but John tells them his father is a union man and he will tell their story if they work with him.  This works. 

Mary comes to Blossom with Teresa and the baby.  She tells Teresa to go downstairs and stay there, but Teresa goes down and comes immediately back up to listen in on the conversation.  Mary is now the big star of the group as she tells the women all about the English home.  She gives Blossom the scented-soap that she took from the larder.  Blossom now says she wants Madam to come and see her.  Mary says Madam will come. 

Lily goes to see the doctor to ask if there is something wrong with her.  He says she is physically fine, but she may need a good rest.  He suggests she take a trip to the hills.  The doctor puts her on a special diet and gives her some exercises to do at home.  Meanwhile, Mary tells Abraham that she won't eat his Indian food because it is too spicy for her.  But as soon as Abraham is gone, she is readily using her right hand to gobble down his food.  Lily comes in and tries to cuddle her child, but Mary is right there to take the baby from her mother.  Lily asks what Mary is feeding the child and Mary tells her not to worry that the child is getting mother's milk and nothing will happen to the baby.

Three of Lily's friends come for a visit.  They compliment her on her lovely garden.  Mary butts into the conversation and the visitors don't like it.  They tells Lily that she must be much tougher with her servants.  Mary brings out the baby and tells the women that the little one is just like her own child.  She also tells the visitors that she is like them, since her father was an officer in the British regiment.  The women visitors are shocked again.  After Mary leaves, the says the guests say that Anglo-Indians are the worst servants.  They have the bad characteristics of both the Indians and the British. 

Mary talks with her niece and her sister.  The name Cotton Mary came from Mary's preference for wearing clothes of English cotton, not Indian cotton.  Rosie's mother wants Rosie to work in an English household and one day go to England.  Mary invites Rosie to come over to the English home and see what it is like.  Maybe should could work for Madam. 

The English women rope John  into being in the play they are putting on.  John has to play the part of Charlie's aunt and wear female clothes.  When they take a break from rehearsal, May rushes up to fawn over Master.  The English women don't like it at all! 

Rosie comes for a visit to the English home.  She sits on the couch and acts likes a proper Englishwoman asking for tea, please.  On the visit they run into Master, who is taken with Rosie.  He hires her for a translating job.  John asks Mary to join the play, but she won't.  The baby is left behind and Abraham has to take care of her.  Mary takes Rosie over to meet Madam, but she is in a terrible mood and is rude to the two Indian women.  Then Abraham brings the baby out saying she needs to be changed and Madam tells Mary that this is not Abraham's job. 

Later in the kitchen Mary puts on a crying act, saying she did not like how she was treated by Madam and Abraham, so Madam should let Abraham take care of her baby.  So Madam has to console Mary to get her to stay.   She even begs Mary to stay. 

And now Mary is the right-hand person of the house.  Mary finds Theresa with Abraham and she says she is going to tell Madam about this.  Abraham tells her not to cause any problems.  Rosie comes to the house and tells Mary that she will be traveling with Master because now she has a job translating for him.  He is writing an article on the health system.  Mary doesn't like it and so she tells Rosie that Madam won't like it at all.  She shoos Rosie away. 

Mary starts planting the idea in Madam's head that Abraham has been stealing items, such as the English soap.  She also hints that Theresa is spending too much time with Abraham and not in a good way.  Mary wheedles her way into not only getting Madam's key to the larder, but to all her house keys as well. 

Blossom tells her daughter that she will chase the Englishman away and end up with nothing.  Rosie refuses to listen to her.  Rosie leaves.  She takes a boat ride with Master and they end up at a little hut.  They kiss each other and then go into the hut. 

In school Theresa is teased by the Indian girls for being the teacher's pet.  The next day Theresa pretends that she is sick so she doesn't have to go to school.  Mary uses this to tell Madam that Abraham's food is making Theresa sick.  Mary is becoming very bold now with her open complaints about Abraham.  She even begins to scare Theresa who tries to defend Abraham.  Madam seems to believe Mary and won't even listen to the protests of her daughter that Abraham didn't do anything. 

Lily asks John about going back to England.  He tells her just to rearrange the place to make it look more like their old place in England.  Lily tries to discuss the matter of Abraham, but, once again, John is not listening to her.  The next morning Madam fires Abraham.  Abraham protests that Mary has been against him from the start, but Lily will not discuss the matter.  Lily cries after Abraham leaves.  Abraham's replacement, who is Mary's cousin, turns out to be a drunk. 

Mary dresses up in one of Madam's dresses to take the baby out for a stroll in a carriage.  She takes the baby with her to the hair salon to ask for a trim.  Lily's friends recognize that the dress Mary is wearing belongs to Lily.  Mary sits down.  The English women start complaining about a terrible smell.  They ask about it and Mary gets in a dispute with them.  She says just because she is black doesn't mean that they can treat her this way.  Then she takes out the piece of meat she got from the market and puts it under everyone's nose.  The women are disgusted.  Then she throws the meat on a table, throws some money on top of the meat and walks out with the carriage in a huff. 

Theresa tires of being ignored by her mother and starts complaining about her and Mary.  She tells her mother that she does not even care that Mary takes them over to her sister's house.  Mary's sister is the one feeding the baby.  Silly Lily is shocked.  Theresa also tells her mother that she should never have sacked Abraham.  Mother agrees.  Theresa says that Abraham was her friend and this was his house too.  She blames her mother for the fact that both her father and Abraham are now gone from them. 

Lily and Theresa go to Abraham's house, but he has left the house since his mother died.  He now lives in an English house. 

Mary is supposed to bring Madam to see Blossom today.  Everyone is all dressed up and the home is party decorated.  Blossom is so upset when Madam does not come.  Mary is cruelly indifferent to Blossom's feelings.  To get back at her, Blossom tells Mary to go see what her Master is doing with Rosie.  Mary turns on her calling Blossom an Anglo-Indian thing, a half-caste girl with no legs.  Mary is acting like an irate English woman.  Blossom fights back by saying that Mary's father was no more than a fellow shining the shoes of the British.  Mary is so upset that she virtually runs from the house with the baby. 

John and Rosie are together having sex.  Rosie tells John about his baby daughter receiving milk from her Auntie Blossom.  John is shocked and tells Rosie to get off him!  Mary arrives and pounds on the door.  John grabs his clothes and runs out a back way.    Mary sobs and calls out to master when she sees him coming down another stairway.  Then she goes back to pounding on the door.  Rosie thrusts the doors open showing her Auntie that she is naked from the waist up.  Mary is shocked and tries to cover Rosie up. 

At home John confronts his wife about letting their baby be fed "by some sort of bloody half-breed in an almshouse.'  He accuses her of neglecting the children.  Lily fires back about his constantly being away from his family.  Mary returns to the house with the baby.  Lily asks her where's she been all this time.  Mary becomes very rude to Lily now complaining about this and that.  But then she mentions her husband has been fooling around with another woman.  Lily tells her to gather her things and get out of the house!  She then throws the cousin out of the house. 

Madam now has to take care of her own baby.  And she feels so much better after having gotten rid of Mary and her cousin that she can actually feed her baby herself.  Mary now acts like a mad woman, crying over an imagined baby in her arms.  The little girl from the almshouse brings Mary to the institution.  The other women are shocked at how dirty she is and how out of it she seems.  The women take her to have some food and then they will bathe her.  One of Mary's sisters says:  "What do you expect of the English?  They pick you up and drop you." 

Lilly, Theresa and the baby are going back to England for awhile.  John is staying in England. 

Mary remains at the almshouse.  She now starts acting like she's the mother of the small girl, telling her to stay focused on her job or how will she ever get out of here?. 


This is all about racism and how it harms people, both master and slave.  The Indian women who works as servants for the English are treated well, except when they get out of line and then the racial slurs begin.  Cotton Mary is half British and half Indian and she wants to be accepted by the English ladies in India.  She lives is a fantasy world where she looks down on the Indian servants as less than her.  She usually says something nasty about the Indians.  But the English don't accept Mary as English because of her skin color and her mixed-racial background.  They refer to her as a half-breed.  As part of Mary's grand plan to be accepted by the English, she wheedles her way into the life of a very lovely English woman, but one who is a bit depressed and lonely, seeing as how she is virtually abandoned by her part-time husband.  Mary takes advantage of the English woman and manipulates herself into replacing an old and trusted servant named Abraham.   Then she starts wearing Lily's English clothes and walking around town like an English snob.  Frankly, Mary probably suffers from some delusional personality disorder as she is ridiculous in her racial and social pretenses.  Mary's niece Rosie also wants to get into the English world by using her beauty to seduce John the husband (which doesn't take much doing).  In the end all the racial prejudices and the anti-Indian and anti-British feelings come out.  Out of all the disorder and mess, things return back more to their normal state (even though that state is very racist). 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.   


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