Filmmaker James Ivory was born and educated on the west coast of the United States (where he made his initial short non-fiction films) and began his filmmaking career in earnest in India, where he made his first four feature films with the collaborators who would remain with him throughout his career: producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Yet his filmmaking reputation today rests predominantly on his British films, and his first British production was a modest documentary made for BBC Television.
Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972) is a 55-minute portrait of the celebrated Bengali scholar Nirad Chaudhuri. Author, intellectual, scholar and expert in numerous fields of study, Chaudhuri was a journalist and magazine writer, writing in both English and Bengali, when Britain ruled India, and became a controversial voice when he published his autobiography, The Autobiography of a Brown Man, in 1951. (The title of Ivory’s documentary was taken from Chaudhuri’s book.) He was an outspoken critic of both the British rule of the colonial era and of Indian rule since and remained controversial even as he gained respect and acceptance in India and abroad.
The BBC commissioned Merchant Ivory Productions to produce Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization in 1972, while Chaudhuri was researching a book on Sanskrit scholar Max Mller in Oxford and London. It was a fitting match of subject and filmmakers: a production partnership founded in India with an American director (Ivory), an Indian producer (Merchant) and a Polish-German writer (Jhabvala), all with cosmopolitan educations and experiences. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala knew the celebrated Indian scholar from her life in Delhi, where she was a frequent guest at his dinner parties, but Ivory, who had briefly met Chaudhuri in India, was barely acquainted with him when he embarked on the documentary. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Ivory joked to interviewer Robert Emmet Long in the book James Ivory in Conversation.
Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, September 29