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The Detachment of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala


“I want a happiness without a hole in it, I want the bowl without a crack”

–From ‘The Golden Bowl’


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplays did not scream, or even appear to make profound statements. The sorrow was matter-of-fact. It took me a while to understand the detachment.

As part of the influential Merchant-Ivory films, hers was an equal music. With only 20 films to their credit in a span of five decades, their cinema could be described as boutique, without a price tag, but most definitely a designer label. The team worked so seamlessly that it became difficult to attribute anything to a single individual. Ismail Merchant as producer might have been a great salesman, but he did not market a product. He sold an idea to get the big stars to act in these films. James Ivory used light and a feather touch to create a narrative from silences. And Jhabvala fleshed out stories for celluloid, some based on her own novels, others adapted.

A screenplay is the blueprint on which the director constructs an edifice. In the Merchant-Ivory films the structure was also a blueprint – it was not a tower that stood tall or a vast expanse that took up space. This was not concrete and steel, but ink drawings with notations. There was no finality, and many denouements, many moments of epiphany.


I worked my way back and forth with these films, beginning with Heat and Dust.  I did not like it.  It was based on the Booker-prize winning novel by Jhabvala. I was glowing with idealism at the time, which meant anti-imperialism. It is another matter that it had been 40 years since the British had left. With no exposure to colonial masters, and not being a tax-payer yet to understand the power of money misused by the System, the only opponents were monsters of imagined nostalgia.

Besides, the book was written in 1975. What prompted this journey into history, the typical story of an Englishwoman hopelessly in love with, what else, an Indian prince? She forsakes her marriage, and in the 1920s adultery by women was still considered taboo even among elite westerners. The story was narrated by the niece who comes to the country in ‘search’ and as she says, “During my first few months here, I kept a journal so I have some record of my early impressions. If I were to try to recollect them now, I might not be able to do so. They are no longer the same because I myself am no longer the same. India always changes people, and I have been no exception.”

Orientalism in the creative field tended to look through the prism of romance and the perennial seeking of roots, when those were not roots, in the sense of origin as we understand it. Watching the film in a Mumbai movie hall, it was like the Raj revisited. The sepia-toned nudity seemed particularly ridiculous as we had already been exposed to a woman’s bare back, her soot-coloured arms pouring jugs of water from a bucket to bathe in the open space outside the hutments she called home. The other era looked awkward because the city was rife with trade union agitations and mill workers on strike. Indian art house cinema was reflecting dissent, and it was loud. The tribals fighting for their land, walls splattered with slogans, slums becoming characters rather than background to some cheesy event-managed success – the films were reflecting not just reality but change. This was heat and dust, not some scrawled words in a diary and the typical Occidental idea of ‘change’.  Dare one suggest that this idea has remained fossilised and used by President Obama, a constant running on a treadmill to reach nowhere? Jhabvala did become an American citizen.

The comparison to Jane Austen resonates, but only on the surface, although a bit more prominently so in the Indo-centric films where she takes a monocle-eyed view through chintz curtains. In The Householder, though, there is a breakaway from a romantic vision. It is rather telling that this was her first screenplay based on her novel. The pace was as tedious as her central character, Prem. It would appear to be a coming-of-age film, given that many young men of the time, setting up home with spunky wives, were gawky of demeanour and in expression of tenderness.

It could be Guru, with the standard spiritual solace or Shakespearwallah that traced the journey of a family that forms a theatre troupe to perform the Bard’s plays in various Indian cities and towns. Once again, or rather at the very beginning, she set the tone for her ‘attachment issues’.

Part of it could have been her skimming acquaintance with India. She married an architect, a Parsi, a community that carries a baggage of being hounded out of their native land and striving to join the mainstream without becoming it.

Perhaps it was also destiny that brought her to an India that was just putting its pieces back together after the Partition.


Does a person’s own history affect creativity? Born to Jewish parents in Germany in 1927, it may be said she experienced isolation early in life.

Chased in the streets with other kids with the cuss words then, “Jew, Jew”, her parents were arrested by the Nazis. The family escaped to England and she became Anglo-Saxon, traces of the German Jew shadowy figures, like in a Kafka novel. At 21, her father committed suicide. Anybody else might have wanted to write about all of this. She did not fall into the Hollywood fascination; perhaps, it would have been too close to imagine.

Some of her finest works are adaptations of E. M. Forster’s novels, that got her two Oscars. I read somewhere that one has to be self-effacing to work on a classic. In an interview with Philip Horne that was published in The Guardian, Jhabvala had said, “In a way. I’ll tell you what I usually do. I read the book several times, usually it’s a book I know very well anyway, but I read it several times and make some notes and make a kind of plan that I think I would want to follow – usually I don’t, it breaks down at some point – and then I put the book away and really don’t look at it again until I’ve filled out my own thing. And then I look at it again and see what I have missed. But there is a period when the book and I are two separate entities.”

When she did not quite immerse herself, as in Madame Sousatzka, a film directed by John Schlesinger, one of her rare outings outside the collaboration, it turned out to be a bit of a caricature. India did not seem to leave her, for this too was the story of an overbearing expat mother, her talented pianist son and his Russian-American teacher. The theme was about making a choice, like choosing a deadend.

Jhabvala’s most ambitious project as a script-writer has got to be Surviving Picasso. She took loose notes from a biography, but how do you capture brilliance when you have no access to it? She chose the Austen model of recounting the artist’s tumultuous relationship through the voice of his lover. Lovers do not particularly understand art, and Picasso was a devil of a man. Had it not been for Anthony Hopkins’ brooding eyes and hands holding the brush like a weapon, the film would have been a ventriloquist’s tale. However, the humanisation had its merits, and those who love Picasso would still love him, maybe ache for him too. This time the detachment was unintentional, though.


Her final destination was the United States of America, where everything is the mainstream and yet nothing is.

She chose New York, and as she was to recall about the apartments in Germany, it was these that drew her. The gentility in narration was retained in no small measure due to her adaptability without proximity.

She did not write what may be considered an all-American novel or script. Even Jefferson in Paris took him away from the scene of action. Although there had been books and critiques about the American president’s young mistress Sally Hemmings, the film caused an uproar. Jhabvala possibly realised that this was not Europe, or at least not the America of Clinton. However, the film played with the slave girl and did not demonise Jefferson.

What America gave her was Henry James, whether it was The Bostonians, The Europeans, and of course The Golden Bowl. As she told Horne, “…he has such marvelous characters and he has such strong dramatic scenes. You just put your hand in and pull them out”.

Like the perfect bowl with a crack. “A perfect fake,” as the character says. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who died on March 4 in her New York apartment, understood unfaithfulness rather well. For one who had a beautiful marriage, it was not the infidelity of relationships, but the betrayal of adjusting to too much too soon and yet not wanting to belong. Like happiness with a hole.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She can be reached at

Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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