Noormohamed Abdul Rehman (Ismail Merchant), film producer and director: born Bombay 25 December 1936; died London 25 May 2005.
The Indian film producer Ismail Merchant was a shrewd, energetic and creative businessman, best known for the highly successful series of films he made in conjunction with the American director James Ivory. The Merchant-Ivory films, many of them based on classical novels, came to define a whole style, often named "heritage cinema", because of their impeccably researched settings and evocations of middle- and upper-class life in bygone eras.
They made three distinguished E.M. Forster adaptations, A Room with a View, Maurice, and Howard's End; other notable Merchant-Ivory productions included Heat and Dust, The Remains of the Day, and the Henry James adaptations The Europeans and The Bostonians. The opulence of their product belied their low budgets and was a tribute to the acumen of Merchant, who controlled their financing, budgeting and distribution. Rita Tushingham, who starred in one of their lesser films, The Guru (1969), said:
Ismail is always trying to save money, and why not? He was good at that, and I admire the team very much for what they've done.
Though their reverence and studied tastefulness had its detractors (who labelled their work as "the Laura Ashley school of film-making"), most of their films found favour with critics and public alike, with A Room with a View, Howard's End and Remains of the Day receiving Oscar nominations, and the first two winning Baftas.
Born Noormohamed Abdul Rehman, in Bombay in 1936, Merchant was the son of a middle-class textile manufacturer who was also president of the Bombay branch of the Muslim League, agitating for the creation of Pakistan. While studying at St Xavier's College in Bombay, Merchant became fascinated by the cinema, and at the age of 13 he became friends with the film actress Nimmi, who adopted him as a mascot and helped him find work as a model and a film extra, to his father's disapproval.
After graduating in 1958, he immediately moved to New York, where he gained a Masters Degree in Business Administration at New York University while working part-time as a messenger at the United Nations, and raised money to finance film production. "I was not intimidated by anyone or anything," he later said. His first film, a short, The Creation of Woman (1961), which he directed, was nominated for an Academy Award and was an official US entry at the Cannes Film Festival.
It was while travelling to Cannes that he met James Ivory and the two formed a partnership. Ivory had visited India the previous year to make a documentary and had become fascinated by the country, so he responded eagerly to Merchant's plan to make English-language theatrical features in India for the international market. Of particular appeal to Merchant was the chance to finance his films with funds from the frozen rupee accounts of American distributors, who were not allowed by the Indian government to repatriate their revenues but could use them to make films in India.
The Householder (1963) was the first of over 30 films to be directed by Ivory for Merchant. It was also the first Indian film to be distributed worldwide by an American studio (Columbia), and the team's next few features were funded wholly or in part by American studios.
They first attracted significant attention with Shakespeare-Wallah (1965), a quirky, perceptive account of English actors touring India and confronting the changes in culture that followed independence. Written by the team's frequent collaborator, the German-born Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and starring Felicity Kendal and Shashi Kapoor, it had art-house success in both the UK and the United States, and was followed by Bombay Talkie (1970).
Some less successful ventures (including Savages and The Wild Party) preceded the critically lauded Autobiography of a Princess (1975). Its photographer, Walter Lassally, who worked on several Merchant-Ivory productions, revealed that the film
arose out of the fact that they discovered a lot of footage in the vaults of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. The film was written as a framework for the footage.
One of their finest collaborations was a subtle version of Henry James's The Europeans (1979) which brilliantly captured the strategies and morals of Boston society in the mid-19th century, with Lee Remick particularly effective as a charming social climber. Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980), though a lesser piece, also had a bravura central performance, that of Anne Baxter as a teacher who wants to stage a newly discovered Austen play as an operetta.
Heat and Dust (1983), Jhabvala's adaptation of her Booker prize-winning novel, gave the film-makers the opportunity to once again study the culture and mystique of India. Julie Christie played a young woman who follows in the footsteps of her great aunt (Greta Scacchi in flashbacks), who travelled to India and became the subject of a scandal in the 1920s. Christie later said, "I loved the casualness of Jim and Ismail's way of working."
A Room with a View (1985) and Howard's End (1991) were the two biggest international successes for the Merchant-Ivory team, with Emma Thompson winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Schlegel in the latter. Between them came an equally felicitous adaptation of Forster's Maurice (1987), starring James Wilby and Rupert Graves as the gentleman and gardener who manage to consummate their love despite the moral restrictions of the time.
Remains of the Day (1993), set in an English country manor in the 1930s, was the subtle, heartbreaking tale of an unspoken love between a housekeeper and a rigidly class-conscious butler, winning Oscar nominations for its stars, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Subsequent Merchant-Ivory productions, including Jefferson in Paris (1995), The Golden Bowl (2000) and Le Divorce (2003), proved less successful. Their latest film, The White Countess, set in China, is awaiting release. Occasional non-Ivory films which Merchant produced included The Deceivers and The Perfect Murder (both 1988) and The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991).
Merchant also directed films, his first a television-feature-length movie entitled The Courtesans of Bombay (1982), made for Channel 4. His first theatrical feature film was In Custody (1993), filmed in Bhopal, India, and starring Shashi Kapoor, and he followed it with The Proprietor (1996), filmed in Paris starring Jeanne Moreau. His next film, Cotton Mary (1999), with Greta Scacchi as an Anglo-Indian nurse in post-Colonial India, was cited as a fine example of his skill at combining the best of East and West in modern cinema. The last film he directed, The Mystic Masseur (2001), based on a novel by V.S. Naipaul, was described by The New York Times as "a subtle, humorous, illuminating study of politics, power and social mobility."
Always immaculately groomed, Merchant was also a noted chef, celebrated for his Saturday-night curry parties for cast and crew. He wrote several cookery books, including Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine (1986), Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals (1994) and Ismail Merchant's Paris: filming and feasting in France (1999). He also wrote books on film-making; his most recent, in 2002, was My Passage from India: a film-maker's journey from Bombay to Hollywood and beyond.
He was made Commandeur de l'Order des Arts et des Lettres by the Ministry of Culture in France, and in 2002 he received the Padma Bhushan, the equivalent of a knighthood, from the Indian government. He and Ivory, with whom he shared a home in upstate New York, are listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest partnership in independent cinema.
In 1982 Ismail Merchant invited me to Hyderabad to write about the new film Heat and Dust, writes Clare Colvin. It was the first week of filming, and he showed me, with enthusiasm, the dusty old palace he had found for the scenes of the Nawab's banquet. He delighted in discovering forgotten buildings, hiring them for a pittance, and giving them life again in his films. About the number of vintage cars James Ivory required for one scene, he grumbled, "Who does he think I am? Darryl Zanuck?" But, despite the necessary penny- pinching, the effect was sumptuous.
Towards the end of the week, having been much in evidence for the preliminary scenes with Julie Christie, he vanished from the set without explanation. I was told he had flown back to London, but it was only after I got back that I learned the reason for his disappearance - one of the backers had reneged on the promised funding, and Ismail had been hustling around for another backer. Meanwhile there was no money to pay the film crew and actors. Fortunately he found a backer.
It was around that time the story circulated of Ismail cooking curry dinners for the crew in lieu of their salary. He was, in fact, a great cook, and, after a day's work on film production, he would arrive back with bags of groceries to conjure up a curry for his guests within the space of a couple of drinks. His book Indian Cuisine is invaluable for those who wanted to create the taste of India without hours of grinding spices.
Ismail enjoyed roping in anyone on set - journalists and backers included - to be an extra. During the filming of Howard's End, he rang me to say, "I want you to be an Edwardian lady." I was persuaded to arrive at the old Baltic Exchange at 7am on a Sunday to spend the day in several changes of costume. Jim Ivory provided each extra with a storyline about their motive and the costumes were meticulously chosen, even if you would hardly glimpse them on film.
Again jubilant at having discovered a forgotten gem of a building, Ismail took us on a tour of the Baltic Exchange, pointing out its special architectural features. The building was later destroyed by an IRA bomb, but its image remains in the banking scene of Howard's End.Reuse content