If this is Merchant Ivory's idea of hullabaloo, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees would like to see the gentle, low-key comedy they would make about the Apocalypse.
"It is not always good for us to have what we desire terribly."—Sri Narain (Saeed Jaffrey)
Possibly the politest, most well-behaved example of "hullabaloo" ever. This 1978 made-for-television film by the famous team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is a low-key comedy of manners about clashes of cultures and of values. Set in India, as are many of Merchant Ivory's early films, and scripted by frequent collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures brings together a motley assortment of characters in an India in which past and present rub up against each other in sometimes surprising ways.
Facts of the Case
American art collector Clark Haven (Larry Pine) has come to India in hopes of getting his hands on the stellar art collection now owned by the young Maharaja of Tasveer (Victor Banerjee). Also seeking to appropriate the paintings is brisk Lady Gwyneth McLaren Pugh, known as Lady Gee (Peggy Ashcroft), who knew the Maharaja and his lovely sister (Aparna Sen) long ago when they were children dubbed Georgie and Bonnie by their Scottish nanny. Whereas Lady Gee fears for the paintings' future as they molder neglected in a storeroom, Haven simply loves Indian paintings and wants these for himself. The Maharaja, however, wishes to keep his inheritance in one piece, and he seems not to care what happens to the paintings as long as they remain in his possession. His sister the Maharani, however, longs to sell them, perhaps because she and Haven are becoming close, but also because she may hope to escape from her disappointing life with the money the sale would bring.
As Lady Gee sets about sabotaging Haven's friendship with Bonnie, she deploys her own attractive protégée, Lynn (Jane Booker), to sweeten Georgie. Meanwhile, the smooth curator of the collection, Sri Narain (Saeed Jaffrey), is keeping a watchful eye on all the negotiators and looking out for his own interests by keeping Georgie abreast of all the plotting. As conspiracies form and deceptions accumulate, the fate of the paintings becomes ever more uncertain, and the would-be collectors must question their own priorities and values.
For a comedy, Hullabaloo is not an overtly comic movie; its tone tends toward the gently ironic, taking a stance of slightly wry amusement at the different players in this game that they find so important. The only scene of outright comedy here takes place when the Maharaja dresses up as Father Christmas and mugs at the conspirators when he catches them in the midst of an attempt on the paintings. Nor do we have the kind of suspense promised by the back-cover summary, a desperate race against time to rescue the paintings from obscurity and decay. Although the film is strongly plotted, its leisurely pace and quiet tone take it more in the direction of character study than the rollicking caper promised by the packaging. We're invited to observe the different attitudes toward art displayed by the different personae and to discern what these attitudes say about them as people—and, by extension, about their culture.
Haven, for example, compares his discovery of Indian painting to falling in love for the first time; he thus would seem to be a romantic, but nevertheless one for whom possession is all-important. Lady Gee is even more high-handed, believing that the preservation of the paintings in a museum is much more important than their remaining in the country of their creation, but genuine concern to extend the life of the fragile artworks contributes to her sense of entitlement.
While these two jockey for favor, Georgie watches them with polite amusement. The Maharaja is an enjoyable character, a smooth operator of impeccable manners but hidden agendas. His own passion is not for traditional painting but for photography…particularly of young blonde women. Less amused by the negotiations, however, is the Maharani. Still young and beautiful, Bonnie nevertheless carries a faint perfume of disappointment about her; she explains to Haven that the traditional Indian songs of her youth promised her a future of romance that never materialized. It is she who sees in the paintings an idealization of life that does not accord with her own experience. Even Sri Narain, shady character though he seems to be, feels a real kinship with the art collectors, one that indicates that there is more to his character than the self-promoting weasel.
It's probably not going to come as a surprise to anyone that the would-be collectors' attitudes and priorities will have undergone a shift by the end of the film, and that the ultimate fate of the paintings is less important than their inner transformations. This isn't a kind of exotic Thomas Crown Affair but a more contemplative look at the confrontation between East and West, old and new, pragmatism and sentiment. It's a pity, however, that the end result is so very tame. Even more whimsical elements like the rumored presence of a flapper's ghost do little to liven things up. The main thing that holds the movie back from being really strong is its lack of urgency. We enjoy seeing events unfold, but we aren't ever really driven to find out what comes next. Hullabaloo is thus more genteel, more laid-back, and more placid than its title would suggest.
The performances of Pine and Booker are part of the problem here, since both are so flat and stilted that they provide a constant reminder that we are watching actors, not real people. Dialogue that might have been credible if spoken by better actors comes off as clunky and artificial when these two speak it. The other actors give strong performances—Sen brings a nice sense of poignancy to the film, and Ashcroft, Banerjee, and Jaffrey do a fine job of finding the humor and subtlety in their characters—but their relaxed performances only make their costars look even more unconvincing.
The authentic Indian locations, handsomely photographed by Walter Lassally, definitely enhance the film, and the musical score's clever combination of Indian and Anglo elements nicely weaves together the two cultures that interact here. Unfortunately, though, the quality of the picture and sound prevent these production values from really being as impressive as they should. Hullabaloo is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which in these days of widescreen format can't help but seem inadequate to convey the grandeur of the Indian scenery, but the real problem is the rampant grain and speckling, which are near-constant distractions. Colors are warm and don't seem faded, but in other respects the picture fully shows its age and low-budget origins. The mono audio track is clean and free of hiss, but the echoey distortions of dialogue captured on location (and not looped afterward) interfere with our comprehension of some scenes.
The only disc extra here is a new interview with actor Saeed Jaffrey, rather brief at under eight minutes but a pleasant glimpse at the actor's early career, including his role in The Man Who Would Be King, the film that brought him to the notice of many directors. Ismail Merchant briefly joins him to discuss the experience of making Hullabaloo. The case insert features a brief, summary-heavy essay by film historian Robert Emmet Long, who has contributed remarks to other releases in this series of early Merchant Ivory films released on DVD.
Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures is a pleasant little diversion, especially for those interested in seeing how past and present interact in modern India. It also offers some perceptive insights into the personal and political place of art in modern life. While both of these topics are fertile enough to inspire much more development, Hullabaloo seems designed more to offer a capsule portrait of them rather than a full-blown thesis. It is, if you will, a miniature painting rather than a landscape, and its small scale is part of its appeal.
The quiet charm of this slight but pleasant film wins out. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
• Interview with Saeed Jaffrey
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