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I don't take no for an answer

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February 2003
I don't take no for an answer

By CHITRA BONAM

The outer office is not exactly what you?d expect from an Oscar winner?- nothing fancy or glamorous, just functional. Framed posters of his films cover the walls, and the two desks near the entrance are littered with paper. Beside the desks, there are several blue four-inch wide plastic binder folders with computer printout labels such as ?Le Divorce?. The down-to-earth d�cor of the office has something to do with its owner ? Ismail Merchant. Dressed in a black suit with off-white stripes and a red bow tie with off-white polka dots, he comes out of his room to greet me with a smile and handshake.

Ismail Merchant, the cofounder of Merchant Ivory Productions, is known for films that explore human emotions and various cultures. Ismail Merchant is the world?s leading independent filmmaker and divides his time between New York, Paris, London and Bombay. Together, the Merchant Ivory team has produced over 40 films in forty years and has won six Oscars. Merchant Ivory Productions is best known for award-winning films such as Heat and Dust, Howard?s End, A Room with a View, and The Remains of the Day.

Ismail Merchant?s room is more spacious; its walls are decorated with artifacts from various countries. But his desk too is littered with paper. He shuffles through his papers as I walk in. In this interview with Khabar magazine, he shares his thoughts on films, success and his latest book, My Passage from India.

Khabar: What inspired you to write this book at this particular time?

Ismail Merchant: Well, I think it is nice? Merchant Ivory Productions has completed 40 years and made 46 films. We have been in so many different countries and also I thought this was a good opportunity to write something.

Khabar: In your book, you write about how you walked into the Academy Awards office and entered your first film, Creation of a Woman. There are many other instances like this. Throughout the book, you seem to have the attitude that anything can happen; that you can do anything you set your heart on. You were doing all this in the 1960s. Did it ever occur to you that you were not white and therefore your work may have less chance of being recognized?

Ismail Merchant: I don?t think it?s about being brown, black or white. I think it?s just sort of your own intuitive feelings. There?s no reason why a black man cannot be better than a white man. It?s not the color so much. I think it?s more of the inspiration and imagination. That can take you to any height you want to go to. I was aware of racism but I never had any racial differences and I was never subjected to it.

Khabar: You had taken on many adventurous projects ?- such as continuing to film something though you didnn?t know where you would get the financing to finish it. But somehow, it has always worked out for you. How is it that you refuse to see an obstacle as an obstacle?

Ismail Merchant: Well, it is the faith that somebody up there likes me, that we have the blessing of God. So once you obtain that, nothing can stop you. That really is one of the most interesting things and of course, the belief in oneself. You start with somebody who?s all-powerful, and if they are on your side, and if you put your faith in that, nothing can stop you.

Khabar: What has been the most satisfying project that you?ve worked on?

Ismail Merchant: Films are most satisfying. I?m satisfied with practically all the films that I?ve worked on. They?re all done with passion ?- The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, In Custody, Heat and Dust.

Khabar: How would you describe the themes of movies you tend to make? What is that constitutes the Merchant Ivory quality?

Ismail Merchant: First of all, they deal with cross-cultural themes. It?s about so many things in life that they are not just pertaining to one particular society but multicultural. And then they also deal with the influences of west over east, east over west. All that plays an important part in our work as well as in our life. I think that?s a very important side to our films.

Khabar: Why do you feel it?s so important to concentrate on different cultures? Is it because you want to bring about an understanding between cultures?

Ismail Merchant:: Well, no. It?s because I live in different cultures, different countries; so one is equipped to speaking out through one?s art about sharing of cultures.

Khabar: After your first major commercial success, A Room with a View, the big studios began to take an interest in you. Instead of taking the Hollywood route at that time, you went back to India. Why?

Ismail Merchant: But Hollywood took the interest right from the beginning. The Householder was sold to Columbia Pictures. That was our first film. Shakespeare Wallah to 20th Century Fox, The Guru to 20th Century Fox. So Hollywood has always been interested in talent. But we didn?t go their route because we were not interested in their sensibility. We wanted to have our sensibility.

Khabar: What would you consider as Hollywood sensibility?

Ismail Merchant: There is a formula ? like Bollywood too has formula. Hollywood formula is a kind of bang-bang movies. It has a lot of the same things ? car chases, murders and the stuff. The horrors of life reflect in the movies. We have created our own formula so why borrow someone elsese?s formula?

Khabar: Why do you like making movies about India so much? You?ve had to deal with a huge amount of red tape, bureaucrats and the Indian movie mafia. Do you still feel it?s the worth the trouble to make movies in India?

Ismail Merchant:: Of course it is, because it?s your own country. First of all, it?s very satisfying and pleasing to make movies and particularly so in India.

Khabar: What do you try to capture about India in your films?

Ismail Merchant: The beauty, the wonderful stories, characters. They are multi-layered characters.���Well, we?ve had the influence of the Turks, Greeks, Persians, English, Portuguese, and French. There are many influences we?ve had over the years and that?s what I mean by multi-layered characters.���

Khabar: You?ve won several awards for your films. Which one gave you the greatest pride? Why?

Ismail Merchant: Padma Bhushan. Because it?s my country. It?s always nice to be recognized in your own country. I?ve been recognized in France, Italy, England, and in America but at home, it?s different. It?s like In Custody won four national awards. My cookbook was more successful in India?-it was a best seller in India. It gives me great pleasure to be recognized in my own country.

Khabar: Your films do not concentrate on computer-generated effects, violence or needless sex. But you still manage to produce a film for $8 million and gross $70 million. How do you do that?

Ismail Merchant: Well, it was $3 million if you talk about Room with a View; Howard?s End was $8 million; and Remains of the Day was $12 million. But collectively we have grossed over $200 million. So that?s a very good sign. They are good stories, good characters, and done impeccably. You reveal so much from those characters.

Khabar: Your collaboration with James Ivory has gone on for over forty years and is even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest partnership in independent cinema. You?ve had a similar long-standing relationship with writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It?s not common for creative collaborators to last this long without suffering fallout. How did the three of you manage to work it out for so long?

Ismail Merchant: We have a respect for each other and each one has an enormous talent. So if you feed on that talent and at the same time enjoy working with your friends, things work out for the best. I think that is the main essence of our teamwork.

Khabar: In your book, you wrote about films that you wanted to do but James Ivory and Ruth Jhabvala didn?t. Working as a team doesn?t mean that all three of you have to agree on the same thing all the time. But what are the similarities between the three of you?

Ismail Merchant: The similarity is our sensibility. We believe very strongly in our projects. All three of us share that passion.

Khabar: How are you dissimilar?

Ismail Merchant: We?re all from different continents. One is a European Jew, one is an Indian Muslim and one is a Christian from America. And our attitudes are different towards life. I am a different kind of a person, more an optimist, positive, a gambler in spirit. The other two are quieter, more reflective.

Khabar: You write with a lot of respect for Satyajit Ray. What were the most important things you learnt from him?

Ismail Merchant: To speak the language of emotion in cinema and not deviate from it. And in all the films you do, the characters and stories are the most important things.���

Khabar: You?ve now spent more years in the west than in India. Do you still feel like an outsider? Or is it that you feel at home in both places?

Ismail Merchant: I feel comfortable in both places. I?m lucky to have been in so many places.

Khabar: My Passage from India shares an insight into your humble beginnings as an Indian immigrant and traces your ascent to the king of all independent filmmaking. What would you like people to know about you, the man, rather than the filmmaker?

Ismail Merchant: A humanitarian ? through films, through onee?s work. We have a foundation; we want people to become an insider member. The Merchant Ivory foundation supports artists and filmmakers.

Khabar: I found it very amusing to read about how V. S. Naipaul gave you the rights to make a film from his novel, the Mystic Masseur. He said that your persuasive powers were legendary and so he granted you the rights which you couldn?t get earlier through his agents. Can you tell me a bit more about the important personality traits that one must have to succeed in the movie business?

Ismail Merchant: You have to have the passion and you have to have the feelings. You have to be a person who should not take ?no? for an answer. You see the elephant there (he points to a thick bronze elephant about two feet long and one foot wide); you can?t move an elephant. You look and you are in awe. So that?s how I describe myself.

Khabar: One of the things that the Merchant and Ivory foundation does is to sponsor younger filmmakers? Is that one of the ways to show younger filmmakers that there are other paths than the Hollywood one?

Ismail Merchant: Yeah, absolutely. Young people should sort of get to their own passion. The foundation helps them get there and develop it. It?s to give them a small way, to give them a push. They send us a letter with their ideas, their resume and then we see if we?ll sponsor them.

Epilogue:

Ending the conversation with a smile and bright eyes, Ismail Merchant quickly returns to rummaging through his papers.

Merchant is now 66 but is far from retiring. The Mystic Masseur, a film adapted from V. S. Naipaul?s book, was set in Trinidad and released in spring 2002. Diane Johnson?s best-selling novel, Le Divorce, is set in Paris and due to release in April 2003.

In his own words from his book, My Passage From India, ?Unlike Ganesh, The Mystic Masseur of my film, who, after a life full of incident, collects his MBE from the British Government and settles into a happy retirement, this is not my final chapter. For me, the possibility of retirement seems to grow more remote as the projects keep coming.? o


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