Merchant, a king among producers, dies

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The Independent Culture

Ismail Merchant, the film-maker famed for his elegant portrayal of affluent pre-war British society, has died. He was 68.

The Indian-born producer, who formed one of the film world's most successful partnerships, with the American director James Ivory, died in a London hospital surrounded by friends and family, a spokesman for his company, Merchant Ivory Productions said.

The company is credited with providing a much-needed boost to the British film industry by producing a string of highly successful literary adaptations, including Howards End, A Room With A View and The Remains of the Day. The films helped to launch the careers of such leading actors as Helena Bonham Carter, as well as earning the pair six Oscars and two Baftas.

The cause of the film-maker's death was unclear. A spokesman from the company's London office said Merchant, who was in London working on his latest film, had "died suddenly" after suffering from stomach problems over the past year. Indian television news reported that he had been unwell for some time, and recently underwent surgery for abdominal ulcers.

The longevity of Merchant's collaboration with Ivory ­ they have worked together for 44 years ­ earned them a place in Guinness World Records as the most enduring partnership in independent cinema.

Although widely regarded as a duo, the company was in fact a collaboration of three, the third partner being the German-born novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote many of the Merchant Ivory screenplays. Since being formed in 1961, the company has produced more than 40 films. The impact of Merchant Ivory's work on British cinema was reflected in 2002, when it became only the second company to be awarded a special fellowship by Bafta.

Last night, the Britishfilm-maker Lord Puttnam was amongst the first to pay tribute to Merchant. "It's very sad and unexpected news," he said. "He was an extraordinary man. He was the one true independent film producer in Britain."

Lord Puttnam said he thought Merchant's death may mean the end of the Merchant Ivory team. "I don't know if they will continue because I'm not sure James will have the stomach to carry on," he said.

Merchant travelled from his home in Bombay at the age of 22 to study for a masters in business in New York.

Two years after arriving, he released his first film, The Creation of Woman. The following year, it was nominated for an Academy Award and was an official entry in the Cannes Film Festival.

It was en route to France that Merchant met Ivory. Together with Prawer Jhabvala they formed Merchant Ivory Productions, originally intended to make English-language features in India for the international market. Their first feature, The Householder, released in 1963, was based on a novel by Prawer Jhabvala.

In an interview last year, Merchant said: "When we first began, Ruth told us she had never written a screenplay. That was not a problem, since I had never produced a feature film and Jim had never directed one."

From that point, Merchant generally served as a producer, and was considered the business mind behind the collaboration, while Ivory concentrated on directing.

Explaining his formula for what constitutes a successful film, Merchant once said: "It should be a good story ­ it should speak about a time and place that is permanent. It should capture something wonderful with some great characters, whether it's set in the past or in the future."

Their first film to attract wide recognition was Heat and Dust, starring Greta Scacchi, in 1983. Then came a three film affair with EM Forster novels, beginningwith the critically acclaimed A Room With A View which won three Oscars. Set in the Florentine countryside and the well-appointed homes of the English Edwardian upper classes, the film starredBonham Carter, then a little-known actress, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dame Judi Dench and Denholm Elliott. Maurice, and Howards End, with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins,followed ­ the latter winning the company three Oscars. Hopkins also starred in their next film, The Remains of the Day, adapted form the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and released in 1993. It was nominated for eight Oscars.

In recent years, Merchant Ivory diversified from period films, producing, amongst others, the French farce Le Divorce, in 2003. Merchant had been putting the finishing touches to his latest film, The White Countess, due for release later this year. The partners were also working on The Goddess, a musical about the Hindu goddess Shakti.

His films

* The Householder 1963, Stars Shashi Kapoor

* Heat and Dust 1983, Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted her own book

* Room with a View 1985, Adaptation of EM Forster novel. Starring Helena Bonham-Carter

* Remains of the Day 1993, Based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel

* Surviving Picasso 1996, Another Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay

* The City of Your Final Destination 2005, Based on Peter Cameron novel