Cast & Crew
Prem, a young schoolteacher, helps a friend fight the depression of his recent marriage by pointing out that the responsibilities of a householder are not terribly difficult, and he relates his own first experiences. As Prem was starting his first teaching job, his marriage to Indu was arranged. Unable to cope with his job and the new responsibilities of a householder, he is terrified when he learns that Indu is pregnant. Bewildered and unhappy, he sends for his mother, but when she arrives, he finds that she does not get along with his wife. Unable to get help from his friends, he becomes involved with an American who has come to India in search of the spiritual life; next he temporarily joins a religious sect which renounces worldliness. He soon begins to realize how much he has come to love and need his wife, but upon returning home, he discovers that she has left to escape from his mother. When Indu also realizes the importance of their marriage, she returns and they trick his mother into leaving. After Prem finishes telling his story to the newlywed, he and Indu leave to go home.
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
In short, Merchant, who usually produced, and Ivory, who usually directed, soon were to surpass themselves, but that first film, and the story behind the making of it, put in place an approach that mostly stayed the same over the ensuing decades, even as their budgets grew and their projects became more ambitious, especially when they later focused on English and American sources. This is probably the place to mention the third member of what was often a triumvirate - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, upon whose 1960 novel the film is based. When Merchant, whose charm and powers of persuasion were legendary, asked her to write the screenplay as well, she replied that she had never written one. That was alright, Merchant assured her, he had never produced a feature film and Ivory had never directed one.
In all, Jhabvala wrote the screenplays of 23 of Merchant-Ivory's 43 features, including the adaptations of Forster's A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987) and Howards End (1992) and James's The Europeans (1979), The Bostonians (1984) and The Golden Bowl (2000). She wrote the screenplay for The Householder in 10 days without going back and consulting her novel. In doing so, she became the third member of an enduring artistic triangle. "It is a strange marriage we have," Merchant famously said. "I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew and Jim is a Protestant American."
Yet it's precisely because Ivory and Jhabvala were observant, empathetic outsiders that much about India's differences and specificity registered with them. Unlike the fatuous Western hippies depicted in The Householder, who come to India for a spiritual fix and can't get past the nonsense in their heads, they were able to stay open and let the richness and nuance of India come to them. While it may be concluded that Ivory and Jhabvala provided the refinement and nuance that quicken film after film, there can be no doubt of Merchant's resourcefulness in making the films happen, starting with this one. When he learned that the Indian earnings of American film studios had to stay in India, he financed their fledgling effort by selling the film to Columbia for $100,000 of its blocked Indian assets.
Far from arcane or mystical, The Householder is one of the most practical and grounded of films, even if it takes Shashi Kapoor's poor teacher, Prem, the entire film to connect with its life lessons. Struggling to make his new marriage and his lowly job work in a Delhi whose postwar boom passes him by, he's buffeted by domestic and vocational problems in what amounts to a comedy of non-communication. Everybody has a lot to say, but nobody really talks to one another. They're too busy attitudinizing or power-tripping if they aren't on the receiving end, as Kapoor's hapless Prem usually is. He spends much of the film being steamrolled by bullies and wondering what he's doing wrong. In fact, Kapoor, an actor since childhood, from a theatrical family that included brothers Shammi Kapoor and Bollywood pioneer Raj Kapoor and a father whose traveling acting troupe (as well as that of Kapoor's English wife) provided the real-life basis for Shakespeare-Wallah, has to work to overcome his dark good looks and dignified bearing and convince us he's ineffectual.
His troubles begin with the gulf that exists between him and his new wife from an arranged marriage. "How can you like her when you don't even know her?" he asks himself. Leela Naidu's Indu, for her part, isn't too thrilled with him either. She's gorgeous (Naidu, whose mother was Irish and whose father was Indian, had recently won a Miss India contest), but a bit lazy and spoiled and bored. She lies around a lot, eats too many sweets (including at a tea party given by the principal of the private college Prem teaches at, which mortifies Prem), can't cook, and isn't at all devoted to housework - a problem partly solved by the fact that their poverty means that their small apartment in Delhi is sparsely furnished. When she tells him she's pregnant, his response is worry, not joy.
She's a bit too much of a modern woman for the eager-to-please Prem, whose conflicting loyalties threaten to pull him apart. (Not surprisingly, Naidu later became an icon of women's lib in India.) Things disintegrate when Prem's overbearing martyr of a mother arrives, intent on reconnecting the umbilical cord, commenting in great detail on her daughter-in-law's perceived shortcomings, and sighing a lot. She's a wonderful old dragon, and the veteran Durga Khote feasts on the histrionics that drive her daughter-in-law out of the house and back home. Prem's misery is compounded by the fact that he can't catch a break at work, either, between the bossy principal and his even bossier wife, who turn every request for a raise into an abstract philosophical discussion, abetted by a sycophantic old gasbag of a senior staff member. Prem fares no better when he asks his drunken card-playing landlord for a break on the rent, only to meekly endure the latter's whining about the high price of imported Scotch.
After feeling nothing but consternation when she was around, Prem finds he misses his wife. His accelerating, if muted, desperation is relieved only by the comic episodes involving a handful of caricatured hippie expatriates who rave on about spirituality and enlightenment, but exhibit little of either as they garden to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." The non-meeting of minds peaks during a non-conversation between Ernest Castaldo's drug-fueled hippie going on about cosmic energy while Prem fruitlessly tries to voice the idea that what postwar India needs is industrialization. The only one who makes any sense is a swami (Pahari Sanyal) who reminds Prem that a householder's calling is nobler than that of a hermit, an ascetic and a student because he supports them all. The question is whether Prem can bring himself to take charge of his life, get his wife back and deflect the suffocating ministrations of his mother.
Although some of the roles are caricatures, the film is advanced with a light hand, both in the writing, the directing and the photography. Ivory said Jean Renoir's The River (1951), influenced him greatly, and he brings to this film the receptivity and respect for India's otherness that the great humanist Renoir did. He also cites his admiration for and gratitude to that greatest of Indian filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, whom he found generously receptive and helpful. More than once, Ray steered his director of photography, Subrata Mitra, to the Merchant-Ivory camp, and Mitra's eye for place and tiny authenticities of detail contribute potently to the impact of The Householder. One shot, of two pigeons trapped in the tiny room, photographed against its barred windows, says it all, and then, in case you miss the point, it's followed with another shot of one pigeon looking bereft when the other has flown off.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: R. Prawer Jhabvala
Cinematography: Subrata Mitra
Music: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
Film Editing: Raja Ram Khetle
Cast: Shashi Kapoor (Prem Sagar), Leela Naidu (Indu), Durga Khote (The Mother), Achala Sachdev (Mrs. Saigal), Harin Chattopadayaya (Mr. Chadda), Pahari Sanyal (The Swami), Romesh Thapar (Mr. Khanna), Walter Woolf King (Professor (as Walter King)), Patsy Dance (Kitty), Indu Lele (Mrs. Khanna).
by Jay Carr
The Films of Merchant Ivory, by Robert Emmet Long, Abrams, 1997
James Ivory in Conversation, by Robert Emmet Long, University of California Press, 2005
The Householder on DVD
The story concerns a young Delhi couple, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and Indu (Leela Naidu), who take a trip to the outskirts of town to attend a wedding ceremony. Hoping to comfort the anxious groom, Prem relates his own difficulties adjusting to an arranged marriage and to his new responsibilities as husband and breadwinner. The bulk of the film is told in flashback, during which we see the couple's relationship develop over time. Based on the way he treats his wife at first, Prem has clearly been spoiled by his mother's attentions. He is also ill-prepared for his new job as a teacher: not only does he have trouble maintaining control over the classroom, but when it comes to matters like asking for a raise he is completely at the mercy of the pompous headmaster. Left alone at home and bored, Indu is inclined to spend the day reflecting wistfully on her idyllic childhood in the country. Gradually the two grow to like each other, but matters are complicated when Indu becomes pregnant and Prem telegrams his mother (Durga Khote) to stay with them. Prem also befriends Ernest, an American with an idealized enthusiasm for Hindu spirituality. He begins to visit a guru himself, toying with the idea of giving everything up and devoting his life to religious contemplation.
Ivory, who was deeply impressed with Satyajit Ray's masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955), had befriended Ray and convinced his cinematographer Subrata Mitra to work on the film. (Ray himself recut the episodic story into its present flashback structure.) Mitra invests the realistically detailed, even drab settings with a poetic quality; the scenes inside the couple's house, especially those staged around the partitioning curtain and the mirror in the main room, are visually memorable. This is no doubt due at least as much to Mitra's expert eye as to Ivory's direction. Another highlight of the film is the hilarious tea party at the headmaster's house, in which social embarrassment is the rule of the day.
The Householder is not without flaws; at times the dialogue is overly literary, especially during some of the exchanges between Prem and Ernest. There are also occasional moments of awkwardness in the acting that betray the hand of a first-time director, but the performances are for the most part affecting. The three leads are particularly good: the handsome Shashi Kapoor is the youngest brother of famed actor-director Raj Kapoor and subsquently became a popular actor in his own right in Indian cinema, working with directors such as Yash Chopra and Shyam Benegal. He is completely believable as the inexperienced husband and teacher. The French-Indian actress Leela Naidu is a legendary beauty in India, a former Miss India who also worked for a time as a model. It's a shame that she has appeared in so few films, because her expressive eyes make her a natural for the screen. As the film progresses we develop a great deal of sympathy for her, even though she has much less dialogue than Kapoor. Durga Khote, a seasoned actress who appeared in major Indian productions such as the period spectacle Mughal-E-Azam (1960), is priceless as the manipulative mother.
The print is in fairly good condition for an Indian film of the era. The elements appear to be better preserved, for instance, than Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. The high-definition transfer brings out the most in the film's black and white cinematography; one wishes that most DVDs of older mainstream Indian cinema (say, Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt films) looked anywhere near this good. The rather distorted mono sound is another matter - it's occasionally difficult to make out some of the dialogue unless you're very used to hearing Indian English. However, this probably has nothing to do with how the film was mastered for DVD and everything to do with the budget and technical constraints under which the film was originally made.
While the DVD lacks an audio commentary track, its other special features are very much worthwhile. Conversation with the Filmmakers is an entertaining interview with Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and the actor Saeed Jaffrey, who first introduced the producer-director team to each other; watching it, one really gets a feel for the complicated chemistry behind independent filmmaking's longest running collaboration. The Sword and the Flute (1959), an early documentary by James Ivory about Indian miniature painting, deftly interweaves historical anecdote, Hindu religious themes, and Indian classical music with visual details from miniatures; it still works well today as an introduction to India's culture and history through its art. The Creation of Woman (1960), Ismail Merchant's first production, is an Academy Award®-nominated dance film drawing upon Hindu mythology. Made on a shoestring budget, the film features some remarkable dancing, especially by Bhaskar Roy Chaudhuri as the divinity. The Janus Films logo at the beginning of the short reminds us of how much film distribution has changed in the last forty years. Today I can hardly imagine someone like Ismail Merchant, a young producer with more enthusiasm than money, convincing an L.A. theater owner to book a film like this at the drop of a hat, much less finding regular distribution for it. My one criticism of the DVD in terms of extras is that it should have included at least a brief excerpt of the alternate Hindi-language version of The Householder, which was shot simultaneously.
The Householder will appeal mainly to a select audience, but it comes recommended nonetheless. It is a testament to the film's rough-hewn charm that when I decided to revisit a few scenes before writing this review, I found myself watching the entire film again from the beginning.
For more information about The Householder, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order The Householder, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen
The Householder on DVD
Opened in Bombay in July 1964 as Gharbar.
Released in United States 1963
Released in United States June 28, 1990
Feature directorial debut for James Ivory.
Released in United States 1963
Released in United States June 28, 1990 (Shown as part of series "The Films of Merchant Ivory" Los Angeles, June 28, 1990.)