When Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger thinks Merchant Ivory, he thinks "pot-smoking hippies on a quest for infinite consciousness." Don't you?
"All that matters is the infinite!"—American hippie who may or may not be on mind-altering substances
The Householder is a low-key, charming movie. Though it is a decent study of middle-class relationships, in the overall scheme of cinema The Householder is not likely to be remembered as a classic. Fans of Merchant Ivory Productions, however, will find this DVD a real treat—not so much for the film itself as for the exploration of Merchant Ivory's roots.
Facts of the Case
Prem Sagar (Shashi Kapoor, a staple actor in Merchant Ivory films) has just become married to the beautiful but listless Indu (Leela Naidu, The Guru). He hardly knows her, and after a few weeks of marriage he's not even sure he likes her. Indu doesn't regard Prem as a real catch, either. Despite their indifference, however, the two seem suited for each other, and the viewer can project a possible chemistry onto them.
After weeks of needling Indu about how to cook his food and keep his house, Prem gives up and calls in his Mother (Durga Khote, who has appeared in a host of films spanning five decades). His mother immediately sets into Indu, berating her upbringing, cleanliness, and taste. Surely, this is the way toward a smooth marital partnership.
Though the film itself is more important than technical matters, I feel the need to start with the DVD presentation. Technical discussion of The Householder represents one of those reviewing catch-22s. The Householder is brought to us on DVD by Home Vision Entertainment, a company with a reputation for conscientious restoration and quality transfers. The transfer was undoubtedly handled with great care. Yet The Householder is an old film, shot on a low budget in 1963 by the fledgling independents Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. A clean print presumably does not exist, and if it did the original quality might not have been stellar. Even with these caveats in mind, however, The Householder looks bad and sounds worse.
Finding the right balance between digital cleanup and leaving grain behind can be tricky. In this case, the number of scratches must have simply overwhelmed the software. There are thousands of scratches remaining in the transfer, as well as white blots and black blots and other such beasties. The onslaught of physical imperfections quiets as the film progresses, but it never reaches actual clarity. On the other side of the coin, we have obvious (though not extreme) edge enhancement that gives each person a gelatinous outline. This effect will be less obvious on smaller screens. All is not lost; the contrast is strong and the black levels smoothly enhanced. The visual issues are not of such magnitude that we can't tell what is happening; they are simply annoyances. I'll take an older print with character any day over needlessly edge-enhanced modern prints, but the fact is that this print is in poor shape.
Although HVE has given us the English version of The Householder, you may opt to turn down the volume and employ subtitles. This mono soundtrack has the aural equivalent of thousands of scratches. Voices are tinny, boomy, or tinny and boomy at the same time. There is a separation effect, as though the voices were being split apart. Sibilants are overpronounced to the point of becoming white noise. The sound is simply not pleasing in any way. Music suffers as well, with a dramatically truncated range and wild fluctuations in volume and tone. In desperation I switched to headphones for the last half of the film, and though it eased a bit of the pure volume fatigue, it did little to improve the timbre of the soundtrack.
The net effect of these issues is that you need to endure poor quality to appreciate this obscure film that has been brought into your living room. Those who are picky about sound or video quality might find this a hard pill to swallow, but there's nothing for it.
Distractions aside, the film itself was enjoyable enough. Like most Merchant Ivory films, the standout in The Householder is the acting. Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu are watchable together, giving reactions laden with meaning. In their private moments, we can practically hear the inner thoughts of the characters. Such delicacy is rewarding to watch. When Mother enters the picture, those reactions crank up a notch or two. Durga Khote brings bustling energy and smiling spite into each scene. She is exactly the kind of mother that you can both love and despise.
Kapoor and Naidu are at their best when the newlyweds find moments of connection. Indu refuses to eat as part of an immature protest. When Prem tempts her with sweets from the market and she consumes them, his relief is palpable. At other times the two flirt and cavort with each other in a non-trite and uplifting manner. Human relationships are never pure joy; it is the moments of emotional levity that make relationships work. We see and feel these moments firsthand, which is The Householder's real achievement.
The Householder contains a handful of nifty cinematic devices that would eventually emerge as Merchant Ivory's signature style. Ivory is particularly good at managing transitions. On several occasions we follow characters through inner ruminations, and the transitions into and out of these thoughts are pleasing on both visual and symbolic levels. They suggest the self-absorptive focus of inner thought. Another subtle device, one that is repeated in other Merchant Ivory films, is the symbolic use of birds. Early in the film, when Prem and Indu are restlessly holed up in the bedroom, we see two pigeons keeping their distance from each other while trying to look out the same window. Later, when only one of the characters is in the house, we see one bird in the window, staring forlornly out the window. When the two are reunited, there are no longer birds in the window; it is simply a window.
Prem's life is peopled with odd characters. His "wise" married friends give him sterling advice, such as not to coddle his woman. One insightful chap urges Prem to petition his landlord for lower rent with an obsequious letter (the cornerstone of any powerful negotiation). Most remarkable is a clan of American hippies seeking higher consciousness in India. This gang is a hoot, spouting metaphysical nonsense at every turn. This sets up an honest-to-goodness holy man who sees right through Prem's dilemma and gives him the only good advice we hear in the whole film.
These are moments that give The Householder its grace and humor. It is a successful film that paved the way for future collaboration. Background on the genesis of the Merchant Ivory collaboration is really what makes this DVD stand out.
It may be stating the obvious, but part of the magic is that The Householder is the first collaboration between director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. As such, the movie has historical significance because these three went on to become one of the most successful tandems in movie history. All the three were performing these roles for the first time (at least for a feature-length film). In this regard, The Householder is equivalent to modern efforts like Nine Queens or Project Greenlight's "Stolen Summer," only without the contests.
The DVD extras emphasize this beginning. The Sword and the Flute is Ivory's first short film, a story told entirely by moving the camera around miniature Indian paintings. To be honest, I found this work quite dry, but I shy away from things that remind me of history class. The important point about The Sword and the Flute is that it brought James Ivory to Ismail Merchant's attention through its remarkable insight into Indian culture. Ivory and Merchant discuss their first meeting, giving colorful accounts of how they brought Kapoor and Jhabvala into the fold. This discussion is a treat to listen to and will be doubly so for Merchant Ivory fans.
Completing the extras is an engrossing effects and dance spectacle about the creation of woman. In pure entertainment value it blows both The Sword and the Flute and The Householder away. The god in this short reminds me of Ra in Stargate, which adds loads of inappropriate entertainment value to the work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Householder is a first effort by the key players, and it shows. The primary culprits are pacing and subplots. The Householder is a measured film, taking its time in scenes of calm reflection. This is good because it allows the actors time to act. It also gives inadvertent emphasis cues. Lots of time is spent in scenes that don't proportionately weigh on the film's main themes or plot.
It is sometimes difficult to discern the main thrust of the plot because of a host of subplots. These subplots mostly serve to make Prem seem weak. One is his quest to ask for a raise from his boss. He has plenty of opportunity to do so, but he cannot summon the courage. It is something we can all identify with, but cumulatively these scenes progress nowhere. At the end of the film he is still trying to summon the courage to ask for a raise, and it does nothing but weaken his character. Another subplot concerns his unruly students, who make him seem ineffective. In small doses these subplots would add color to Prem's life, rounding out his daily experience. In sum, they are unsatisfying and fail to make a cohesive statement.
Prem is also constantly seeking advice from others, and the advice is invariably bad. On one hand I appreciate the open-endedness of the film, but at some point it would be nice to see him take charge of his own actions.
The ending of the film is a bit awkward, although it is a better ending than many modern films possess. There is a perfect moment to end the film, one in which Prem joins Indu behind a curtain that had symbolized their separation. The pure joy of his moving behind the curtain is the film's strongest moment and a natural stopping point. The film then proceeds with a misplaced moment of self-doubt, a point we are already familiar with through prior scenes. The movie does come full circle with the opening scenes, which gives The Householder a cyclical sense of closure.
Though in raw form, Merchant Ivory's notorious trappings of grandeur manifest themselves in The Householder. This is a subtle highbrow vibe, an attitude that colors their films. Once you become sensitive to it, you can find it everywhere. This vibe attracts many and repels others.
On purely technical terms, The Householder's grating audio and poor visuals are something of a deterrent. However, this first major Merchant Ivory production is carefully packaged to emphasize the beginnings of the partnership, which adds an extra layer to each component. If you consider yourself a fan of their work, this is a release you will want to have in your collection.
History has already ruled on this rich collaboration. Annoyances wrought by time do not tarnish the earnest efforts of the filmmakers. The court finds for the defendant.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• The Sword and the Flute (1959)
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