A Matter of Innocence (1967)

Aka Pretty Polly.

I had had no intention of watching this film—in fact, to be honest, I had forgotten all about it until someone mentioned it when I posted a review to mark the passing of one of my favourite Hindi film actors, Shashi Kapoor. I was well aware of the fact that besides acting in Hindi cinema, Shashi had acted in several English-language films (in particular, Merchant-Ivory productions like The Householder and Bombay Talkie, but I’d forgotten this one (which, by the way, isn’t Merchant-Ivory). A sweet, sometimes comic, sometimes poignant coming-of-age film about an innocent young miss who falls in love while in Singapore.

Polly Barlow (Hayley Mills) is the quintessential poor relative for the wealthy Mrs Innes-Hook (Brenda de Banzie). Along with her mother, Polly runs a tiny bakeshop; when the film begins, Polly’s aunt Mrs Innes-Hook is getting ready to embark on a cruise around the world, and wants Polly to accompany her. Not, it is apparent, out of any sort of affection or sense of philanthropy, even though she likes to boast that she is doing Polly a huge favour: no, Mrs Ines-Hook basically wants an unpaid servant along. Polly’s mother and Polly realize this, and Mum tries to dissuade Polly, but in vain.

Which is why, on board ship, poor, plain Polly with her unfortunate dresses, her glasses and her terrible hairdo, finds herself rushing about all the time, fetching and carrying for her aunt. Mrs Ines-Hook is a nasty woman who even grudges Polly the little happiness the girl is able to get by peering out through her binoculars at the sights.

The ship docks at Singapore, where Mrs Ines-Hook’s brother, Robert ‘Bob’ Hook has a plantation and will be coming to the docks to receive his sister and niece, whom he hasn’t seen in years.

But Uncle Bob (Trevor Howard) is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a handsome young man (Shashi Kapoor), who introduces himself as Amazuddin ‘Amaz’, tells them he’s been assigned the task (by Bob Hook) of welcoming the ladies, taking them to their hotel and seeing them settled in. He explains that Uncle Bob is suffering from malaria.

Amaz is very attractive and it’s obvious that Polly is attracted. He helps them into a car, suggests that he may be allowed to borrow it to complete some tasks while the ladies rest, and takes the resultant rebuff from Mrs Ines-Hook in his stride.

On the way to the hotel, while their car is waiting for a traffic policeman to wave them through, whom should Polly and Amaz notice but Bob Hook, in a rickshaw with his mistress Lorelei (Kalen Liu)!

Uncle Bob sees them too and immediately pulls his hat down and turns his face away. Simultaneously, Amaz—who thinks on his feet—is able to distract Mrs Ines-Hook. Polly, who may be innocent but is by no means naïve, comes to the rescue too and joins in the fun of keeping Uncle Bob’s subterfuge under wraps.

At the hotel, Mrs Ines-Hook is checked into a plush room on the same floor as a debonair stranger named Preston (Dick Patterson), whom they encounter in the lift. Preston has obviously been staying at the hotel for a while: he is on very friendly terms with the lift operator.

Preston doesn’t even notice Polly, who goes up to the (much less classy) floor on which she’s been given a room.

On this first day at the hotel in Singapore, two things happen.

Firstly, while waiting around, Polly notices Amaz being greeted by two middle-aged (bordering on elderly) American women who thank him profusely for all that he’s done for them. For showing them so much, for doing so much… it’s obvious that Amaz is a gigolo.

Secondly, at the poolside that afternoon, Mrs Ines-Hook, having stuffed herself on ribs and more, gets into the swimming pool—and dies of a heart attack.

Polly, suddenly left without her tyrannical aunt and without any means of getting hold of Uncle Bob (she doesn’t even have his address) turns to the only person she knows somewhat in Singapore: Amaz. She fishes out the business card he had given her and summons him—and Amaz faithfully turns up. He is there throughout the proceedings, as arrangements are made for Mrs Ines-Hook’s funeral, as Polly telephones Uncle Bob to let him know.

Amaz even takes Polly out for dinner, and then, in what seems as good a time as any, kisses her soundly. Polly is somewhat startled, but Amaz seems to think nothing of this. He tells her what pretty eyes she has, he kisses her again, he ends up making love to her on the beach…

… and he takes her to various friends of his—an optician, a beautician—and gets Polly a makeover. Polly, too, what with the removal of her domineering aunt from the scene, blossoms. She takes over Mrs Ines-Hook’s room, goes through all her possessions, and has everything sorted out by the time Uncle Bob arrives. There’s a treasure in pearls that Auntie had bought in the course of this cruise which is not yet insured.

Will Uncle Bob, since he’s obviously a man of the world and knows Singapore so well, please dispose of these pearls and give the money to Polly?

Uncle Bob is taken aback; he had not expected Polly to be quite so worldly-wise. He hadn’t even expected her to look like this. He’s too outspoken to mince words: has Polly become Amaz’s lover? Doesn’t she realize what he’s like? A gigolo, no more? Polly is indignant; no, Amaz’s heart is in the right place; he feels for her.

Uncle’s warnings re: Amaz don’t seem to have any effect on Polly. But a stylish and beautiful Polly, walking through the hotel to her plush new room, bumps into Preston, who now notices her—and how! Within moments, Preston has invited Polly for cocktails, and Polly has accepted.

And so Polly goes from being a shrinking violet to the toast of Singapore. The glasses, the prim dresses and the appalling hairdo have given way to a fashionably chic look. But how much has the inner Polly changed? And what lies ahead of her? Will she fall a victim to the obviously predatory Preston? Or will she end up living on love and fresh air with the man she really loves, Amaz? Will life throw up other surprises and make Polly grow up even more than she has in the course of these few days?

A Matter of Innocence is a simple enough tale (it was based on a story by Noel Coward) about a somewhat suppressed, ‘good’ girl who’s catapulted into an adventure (of sorts) that changes her—possibly forever. It isn’t as if Polly Barlow is incorrigibly demure and shy to start with: no; in the way she behaves when her aunt’s not watching (for instance, how she plays along to keep Uncle Bob’s subterfuge hidden from Mrs Ines-Hook), she shows a cheekiness, an occasional defiance of authority, and a glimpse of a free spirit that blossoms in its entirety only later.

What I liked about this film:

Hayley Mills, Shashi Kapoor and Trevor Howard. All three of them bring their characters to life excellently. Mills is very believable both as the quiet young woman who sets off on the cruise just so that she can get to see the world before she settles down into married monotony, and as the chic, self-assured miss who goes out painting the town red with a handsome man. She has no qualms in admitting—to Amaz, or to Uncle Bob—that she really doesn’t feel any remorse over the death of her horrid aunt, and she has no compunctions about going off on a date with a man she’s only just met. She goes from being a ‘good’ girl to a ‘bad’ (but not completely irredeemable—far from it) girl.

Trevor Howard is both delightfully wicked as well as—when the moment calls for it—avuncular and wise in his own way.

And Shashi Kapoor? Well. I had to admit I had some qualms about seeing how an Indian would be portrayed in an English film (I don’t really think of the Merchant-Ivory films as outright foreign; thanks to the Ruth Prawer-Jhabwala connection and the Merchant presence, those films are often as much Indian as they are foreign). Would Amaz turn out to be the stereotypical Indian?

No, thankfully no, despite the very old-fashioned language Amaz uses (and which he’s painfully aware is not quite the thing), he is by no means the stereotypical Indian. He isn’t even Indian, actually, since his origin is never mentioned—even Uncle Bob refers to Amaz as an “Asian gigolo”. He is, for all that Victorian language, a suave, street-smart, debonair and immensely attractive man, and one with depths perhaps even he doesn’t realize he has. And Shashi Kapoor pulls off the role brilliantly.

Oh, yes. Matt Monro’s rendition of the title song is very easy listening.

What I didn’t like:

The over-the-top depiction of the bad Far East. Yes, Singapore and Malaysia and all those other exotic places were pretty wild back then, and I’m sure what is shown in A Matter of Innocence is true—to some extent. But this unrelieved debauchery? I wonder. It seemed a little far-fetched to me. Also, the very stereotyped gay hair-dresser hasn’t aged well: back then, this might have been nothing to squirm about, but it certainly made me wince now, fifty years down the line.

And, I will admit that the Bollywood-loving me had hoped for a different ending, but still: it was a satisfying film. And a chance to watch an English film that actually featured an Indian actor in a leading role.

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29 thoughts on “A Matter of Innocence (1967)

  1. Madhu,

    I am going to skip the review and watch the film first and then come back here to comment. Thanks for letting me know about this movie. I have seen some of other Merchant-Ivory movies but didn’t come across this one before. I can barely wait..

    • I should have explained that better, Ashish – my bad (and I’m going to correct it now): A Matter of Innocence isn’t a Merchant-Ivory film. Which was probably what surprised me more; I hadn’t realized Shashi Kapoor acted in English-language films that weren’t for Merchant-Ivory. Unlike (say) The Householder or Bombay Talkie, this one doesn’t have any other Indians in it.

      I would be interested to see your reaction to this. It’s on Youtube; do check it out:

        • Just finished watching it. I agree with you; Shashi Kapoor holds his own! I think his acting skills are pretty good. Perhaps Bollywood audience always looks for over the top “acting” but I think he is just fine. In fact, I think it is much harder to act “normal”. I was impressed! Mostly, as you said, I was concerned how an Indian actor sizes up against others in a non Merchant-ivory movie, a real English movie..

          I did struggle a bit with British accent because I am losing touch with that accent (especially when Polly’s aunt was around)

          It was a decent movie and I still don’t know why I never heard about this movie before.

          Thanks for introducing this movie to me, Madhu!

          • I’m so glad you liked the film, Ashish. I was certainly impressed with Shashi Kapoor – he had a good meaty role to play, and he played it very well indeed (after I’d posted this review, I went off to see what other reviews I could find, and discovered one – by a non-Indian – who described Shashi as ‘brilliant’ – made me feel so proud! :-D)

            Such a shame, really, that this film isn’t better known. I think it deserves to be right up there with Gidget etc in the coming-of-age films.

  2. I watched it as a teenager in Malaysia where I was born. Didnt remember much the story and can’t blame myself since I was too young to realise the meaning of ‘gigolo’. However, Shashi Kapoor was wonderful and I felt proud to be Indian.

    • I can imagine. I don’t think I knew what a gigolo was until I was well into my 20s! So if I’d seen this film in my teens, that important point would’ve gone completely over my head (I remember watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s on a rented VHS tape at a neighbour’s home in my teens, and realized that there was something to George Peppard’s character only when my neighbour’s daughter commented sadly, “What people have to do for a living”. Even then I wasn’t sure).

      Shashi Kapoor was wonderful, yes , and made me proud to be Indian too!

  3. I’m happy you watched and reviewed this! It’s getting a fair amount of attention suddenly after his death and I hope this means it will get a bit more attention generally, as I think it is really good and quite unconventional. I thought Shashi was beautiful as well as excellent as an actor in it.

      • My pleasure :) I agree with you btw, it should be a coming of age classic, but with the interracial romance and prominent gay characters in 1967 I suppose it wasn’t to be. I like it much better than Gidget though.

        • Yes, I suppose the interracial romance and the gay characters did get in the way of being this film being the classic it deserves to be.

          BTW, I can’t figure out why Gidget was the only other film that came to my mind. It’s not a film I liked much either; Gigi was better that way…

  4. A lovely review, dear Madhu.
    Apna Shashi in an English film is always special.

    I first heard of this film at Greta’s blog, but then had completely forgotten about it.
    Thanks for reviving it for me once again.

  5. Thanks for the review and the link to the movie too. I watched the movie today. Shashi Kapoor rather dashing. His acting is rather natural. One thing unfortunate that his lines were in stilted babu English. That was a little surprising. Upmarket tour guides and most Singaporeans speak pretty good conversational English – I daresay better than a comparable set of Indians, at least in the 1960s. My only regret about the movie was the somewhat sepia tinted print. I hope they issue a DVD print.

    As a Bollywood fan, I admit I shed a tear or two for Shashi Kapoor. He was so full of life in this film.

    • Yes, that stilted ‘babu English’ was irritating, though I thought that was a deliberate attempt to parody the sort of stereotyping most Westerners would expect back then (and even now) from an Indian. Though, as you mention, an upmarket Singaporean guide (which he obviously is) would’ve spoken good English, so that doesn’t ring true to character. Also, the fact that he recognizes he’s wrong (he gets upset when he thinks Polly’s teasing him about his English) but does nothing to correct it sounds odd. On the other hand, that could be a hint at his character in general – he knows the work he does is hardly respectable, but he continues nevertheless…

      I hope they restore this and release a DVD sometime, It deserves it.

  6. Unrelated to this film, but related to Indian actors in foreign productions…

    I just discovered that someone has uploaded the Dev Anand starrer, rare Indo-Filipino collaboration The Evil Within on Youtube:

    It also happens to fall within this blog’s preferred time period.

    • I know about this, and bookmarked it some months back. Then Pretty Polly came along (plus, Shashi Kapoor died) so that took precedence… but I will watch this, hopefully sooner rather than later. :-)

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