How We Met: Ismail Merchant & Madhur Jaffrey

Laurence Phelan
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:50

Ismail Merchant was born in Bombay in 1936, and moved to New York at the age of 20. In 1964 he and James Ivory formed Merchant-Ivory Productions; some of their films are `A Room With A View', `Howard's End' and `The Remains of the Day'. Merchant has also written several books, including two on food. He lives in Bombay, Paris, London and New York

Madhur Jaffrey was born in Delhi in 1933, and moved to London in the Fifties to train at Rada. She is best known for her cookery books and television series, but she has also had a successful acting career. She was awarded the Silver Bear Best Actress award for her first film role in the Merchant-Ivory production `Shakespeare Wallah'. She now lives in upstate New York

ISMAIL MERCHANT: Madhur and I met in September of 1958. I had just arrived in America to study for an MBA at New York University and I went to see Saeed Jaffrey, Madhur's ex-husband, who was working at the Indian Tourist Office but was also an actor, because I wanted to produce plays and make movies. Saeed invited me to his house for dinner and that's where I met her.

Saeed was then playing in Lorca's Blood Wedding, off-Broadway, and Madhur had done some plays. Saeed had already appeared in one of James Ivory's films, The Sword and the Flute, and they told me all about him, although I didn't meet James until later because he was in India filming.

Madhur shared all the same passions I have for theatre, movies and food, so it was one of those special moments in the life of a young man, where you meet people who have the same passions that you have, and you know that they are going to go on to become your friends. They were the first friends I had made in New York, so I felt I'd landed in a very special place.

As well as being involved with my studies, I was trying to raise money to put on a production of a traditional Indian story called the Little Clay Cart. I wanted to put it on stage on Broadway, and I wanted Madhur and Saeed to be in it. So I printed up a brochure with their names in the cast list and handed it over to them. It was an outrageous thing to do, but then I was only 20. It didn't happen, but many other things did. Madhur and I made a short puppet film together, and that led on to Shakespeare Wallah, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Madhur's a perfectionist - she does meticulous research for her characters, and always has good suggestions for them. When she played the title role in Autobiography of a Princess, we managed to get her some real jewels from Garrards to wear. I remember two security guards had to accompany her on to the set, and even followed her into the loo. She joked that we were making things harder for ourselves and could just use costume jewels. But she really wanted them, to give her the air of a princess, and when she was wearing them she was a totally different Madhur.

Many people don't realise that acting is Madhur's first passion, because she has singlehandedly made Indian food more popular and accessible in this country. She's so talented - you have to be, to succeed in two different fields. Of course, in a way you can also show your creativity in cooking, because you put your best creative effort into a meal that you will share with people. It's a similar process to acting.

Merchant-Ivory is like a family and you never lose sight of your favourite members. Madhur's a very good friend - so caring and hospitable. I've known her for 40 years, so there have been arguments and ups and downs as there would be in any family. If you don't have that then there is no relationship. You need arguments to make a friendship interesting and add colour. If you look at the life of a brook, it doesn't just go on one level, it twists and turns and flows over stones, otherwise it would be a very mundane journey. And I don't like mundane things.

MADHUR JAFFREY: We have slightly different memories of our first meeting. My husband at the time had met him and invited him to our house for dinner, and I cooked. I was heavily pregnant, which means it was 1958; when the baby was born, Ismail came to the hospital to talk to my husband and me about a play he wanted us to act in. He would often come for dinner and I would cook, and we would all talk about our plans for the future, although nothing was formulated. I had done a voiceover for James Merchant, and Ismail and James got to know each other partly through us.

The friendship kept developing, and eventually, from those discussions over dinner, came the plans to do the film Shakespeare Wallah together. Ismail and James set it up in India while I was still in New York. It was shot in the hills. I can remember being sick in the car, and when I arrived the crew were all disappointed to see this thin, sickly-looking woman who was supposed to be playing a movie star. But I won the best actress award in Berlin for it, and since then we've gone on to make many films together. Now we have houses near each other in upstate New York, so we get to see each other often.

I remember Ismail saying very early on in our friendship that he wanted fame and fortune. He was certain from back then that he wanted to achieve something spectacular. He had so many grand ideas that I'm afraid I rather pooh-pooed some of them. But of course he just went on, slowly and deliberately, to do what it was he wanted to do. We were all young and ambitious and had great dreams, and the irony is that all of us have gone on to fulfil our dreams, and we've stayed good friends too.

Ismail is very loyal and he'd always be there for me. He also has a great deal of charm and charisma, and the courage to do what he wants. He's an extrovert, much more so than I am. I have a very outgoing side and I like being with people, but my life is my family and my children, whereas Ismail's life is the world around him. His great talent is that he can sell or promote anything, which I'm no good at. So I like to be able to make a film with him, and then just leave him to sell it.

He doesn't take no for an answer and I always think that's something I should learn from him. If you say no to me, I'll curl up or go away - I'm easily discouraged. But Ismail's whole philosophy is, "You can say no to me, but I'll be back to ask you again tomorrow." So if I'm in a situation, I always say to myself, "Now what would Ismail do? He'd persist wouldn't he?" It's an important lesson to learn.

`Cotton Mary', directed by Ismail Merchant and starring Madhur Jaffrey, will be released on Friday

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