For most historians, Indira Gandhi’s legacy is decidedly mixed. She clearly favored the Soviets as a not-so Non-Aligned Nation and effectively suspended India’s democracy during the infamous State of Emergency, but she also began the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. However, the daughter of a fallen Indian Maharajah never equivocates in her opinion of the controversial prime minister. She will meet with her father’s former secretary to fondly remember the good old days, but he does not always share her idealized nostalgia in James Ivory’s Autobiography of a Princess, a Merchant-Ivory 1975 television special, which has its theatrical debut this Friday, along with a brand new 4K restoration of Heat and Dust.
Despite his mixed feelings, Cyril “Sahib” always keep his annual engagement with the Princess to mark the anniversary of her father’s death. To her, the Maharajah was a progressive reformer with a jolly sense of humor. Having served first as his tutor and then as his secretary, Cyril came to the conclusion the Indian royal was a master manipulator and a bully, so he is not especially eager to write his biography (and certainly not in the manner she so clearly expects).
Granted, he cannot deny the Maharajah provided opulent living conditions, but he largely blames the luxury for sapping his scholarly ambitions. During their late afternoon tea, the two old palace acquaintances will watch vintage news reel footage of early to mid-20th Century India specially delivered by the BBC, which will serve as Rorschach ink-blots for their perceptions of Indian history and society.
Autobiography is a deceptively simple two-hander, but it is a wonderfully thoughtful and graceful film. Like a good producer, Ismail Merchant re-purposed interview footage with former Indian nobles who had been stripped of their formal recognition and (more importantly) their government stipends, originally shot for an unfinished documentary. It is hard to weep for them, but the Princess seems to better exemplifies the sense of grace and duty that nobility is supposed to uphold. Yet, ironically, she again praises her father for giving her the independence to survive on her own (having jettisoned her deadbeat arranged husband long ago).
For many, this will be a James Mason film they are not familiar with, which should be reason enough to check out the Merchant-Ivory double-bill. In fact, it might just be one of his best performances, constituting some wonderfully complex, delicately shaded work. Although it is clear he has his misgivings about his service in Indian, his ultimate judgment of the Maharajah remains ambiguous.
While Mason exudes world-weariness, Madhur Jaffrey is absolutely luminous as the Princess. She is a forceful screen presence, who only allows the subtlest hints of doubt and insecurity to peak through the Princess’s charm and hospitality. Together, they are quietly terrific playing off each other.