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The Mystic Merchant

February 2003
The Mystic Merchant


The story goes that Ismail Merchant wanted to make a film version of E. M. Forster?s A Passage to India with Satyajit Ray as director but couldn?t do so since David Lean had already turned the novel into a movie. But Merchant?s fascination for Forster continued as the team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala went to make three movies based on books by Forster, Room with a View, Maurice and Howard?s End. And when Merchant decided to write his autobiography, published in November, he called it A Passage from India. (see review in this issue, ?Master Story Teller Tells His Story?)

It?s hard to think of a filmmaker from India who has had as large an impact on world cinema as has Merchant. In a career spanning 40 years and 46 movies the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team has even got into the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest ever film partnership. As if that were not remarkable enough, their films have made a mark by their consistent quality and ability to survive while being outsiders to the Hollywood system. They have also become known for turning famous classics into powerful costume dramas that seem to defy expectations and often work at the box office.

Among their favorite authors, whose work they like to turn to film, are Forster, Henry James, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Kazuo Ishiguro. Merchant has just directed a film The Mystic Masseur, based on a novel by Sir V. S. Naipaul, and the team?s other recent works include Le Divorce, Cotton Mary and A Soldier?s Daughter Never Cries. Caryl Phillips, who adapted Mystic Masseur from the novel by V.S. Naipul, describes the adventurous Merchant-Ivory philosophy: ?If you want something badly enough then you simply hoist your sail and steer a course towards it.?

Their films have won several awards including six Oscar nominations and two Oscars for Howard?s End and Room with a View. Merchant himself has been awarded a Padma Bhushan. The extended Merchant-Ivory family consists of such great actors like Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave besides Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant and Greta Scacchi and a host of other Hollywood celebrities and Indians like Shashi Kapoor and Madhur Jaffrey. Why they continue to work for Merchant-Ivory productions is something of a mystery considering the modest compensation offered, but in at least a few cases it has to do with the sumptuous meals Ismail Merchant cooks for those who he wants in his films.

As one writer who interviews him extensively expressed it, ?Merchant is a handsome man with intense, dark eyes, quicksilver moods and the digestive system of a native Bombayan. He uses these ingredients with the skill of a masterful cook. In fact, on top of everything else, he is a masterful cook. Whenever members of the crew or cast get uppity, he opens his spice cabinet and serves them a humbling incendiary curry. It quells the uprising every time.?

Apart from being a famous film producer and director, Merchant?s culinary skills are legendary. The legend is no doubt helped by the four cookbooks he has written. Just the names of some put them in a league by themselves. His latest cookbook has the improbable though flamboyant title Ismail Merchant?s Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters. The publisher?s blurb says it is ?Structured like the courses of a great meal, this inventive cookbook celebrates Indian cuisine in all its uniqueness and delicacy of flavor. Liberally spiced with personal anecdotes and reflections on Indian customs, it is an exotic feast for senses and certain to whet the appetites of chefs and diners alike.?

For a man who has achieved so much, the beginnings were simple enough. Born into a Muslim family in 1936, he was the only son of a well-to-do textile merchant but had six doting sisters. Already while in St Xavier?s College in Bombay he was known to be a smooth, fast-talking gregarious fellow popular with his peers, a trait he has maintained. He also saw the partition riots and felt the pangs of seeing members of his family move to Pakistan, especially since his father was a friend of Jinnah.

His romance with cinema began in those early years and he recalls how he was fascinated by the actress Nimmi, her sinuous smile and green eyes. Upon graduation from Xavier?s he left Bombay for New York in 1958 for a degree in Business at the New York University. He soon found himself a job as a city guide to the delegates of the Indian Consulate. He was still determined to enter the world of movies. It was during this stint that he began to entertain film executives by making use of his access to the Delegates? Lounge: ?Many of the executives took the bait of lunch in the Delegates? Lounge at the United Nations?- where, of course, the accommodating Brazilian receptionist announced me as an Indian delegate..? One of them eventually financed his first film, The Creation of Woman.

Having the fourteen-minute short film to his credit, Ismail Merchant was now a film producer who decided it was time to go to Hollywood. He managed to screen his film at a movie theater for a week, made sure a significant number of Academy members saw it and nominated it for the Academy Awards. Allied Artists then offered to distribute the film worldwide.

Through his friends, he was introduced to James Ivory, the co-founder of Merchant-Ivory Productions. The first time they met, Merchant recalls listening attentively to James about his films. But of James? account, he writes, ?Jim, on the other hand, insists that as soon as we arrived at the coffeehouse, I left him and went to make phone calls, and then spent the whole evening running between our table and the phone booth to call financiers and other important people. At one point, I even borrowed a dime from him because I had run out of change for the phone.?

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant knew that they both wanted to make feature films about India. They decided that they would adapt The Householder, a book by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, into a movie. The first time James Ivory and Ismail Merchant called Mrs Jhabvala, she pretended to be her mother-in-law to get rid of them. They pursued her to Delhi where they convinced her to give them the rights to her film. With total confidence, they began their first film: ?Jim suggested that Ruth should write the screenplay, but she told us that she had never written a screenplay. That was not a problem. I had never produced a feature film, and Jim had never directed one.? Mrs Jhabvala, Ivory and Merchant, would continue to work together in the following 40 years winning many accolades for their numerous films.

The Householder was distributed by Columbia Pictures but was not a major success at the box office. Shakespeare Wallah did relatively well at the box office and gave them a profile in the industry. The Guru (1969) was a disappointment to them. As Merchant writes, ?After all we had been through, it was a disappointment, but there are no prizes for effort in film making . . .I have always felt that success and failure are part of the same process, like life and death, and one has to accept that.?

Indeed, in the brazen world of typical Hollywood fare of highflying action flicks, Merchant-Ivory films are surely a different breed. To the connoisseur, they are touching works of arts with rich settings and elaborate costumes; to the critic, they are often painfully slow-paced and tedious.

Many of their films have won critical acclaim though some like Jefferson in Paris were not liked by American critics because as Merchant contends it shows the affair in Paris of Jefferson, who went on to become American president, with a Negro woman. While the film sought to humanize Jefferson, Merchant believes the film was instead resented for ?maligning a father of the nation.? One of their early efforts was Heat and Dust, based on a novel by Jhabvala, tracing the sexual encounter between English women and Indian men ? first under the British Raj and then in the heat and dust of modern India. As in many other Merchant-Ivory productions the film explored themes neglected by other filmmakers.

Another path breaking film was In Custody, based on a novel by Anita Desai. It depicted the decline of Urdu poetry and culture as represented in the life of an aging Urdu poet played by Shashi Kapoor. It was Merchant?s first attempt at directing a movie and was obviously something that moved him deeply. ?I only make films that come from the heart,? says Merchant.

Merchant has a clear view of the social message of his films. ?People must recognize the contribution of the lower classes in history; look at important figures in modern culture such as The Beatles, Boy George and The Rolling Stones and how clear their contribution is to us,? he states and he says that in Howard?s End and Remains of the Day the message about class structure is very clear. James Ivory says, ?The real difference, [between us] which nobody has ever noticed, is that Ismail?s films are inevitably about poor people, while mine are almost always about highly privileged people.?? Whenever he directs a film, Merchant?s sympathies are obviously with the underdog.

But the special character of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team may lie in their unique backgrounds. ?We are an amazing combination,? says Merchant, ?a European Jew, a Muslim from India and a Christian Catholic from America.? Merchant describes his relationship with Ivory and Jhabvala as sangam, which in Hindu lore means the sacred meeting of three rivers ? the Ganga the Jamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

What he doesn?t mention is that all of them come from minorities in their respective countries. Jhabvala saw a large part of her family killed because they were Jews during the Holocaust, and the memory changed her immensely. Merchant was likewise from a minority in India. Ivory, though the most protected of the lot is still a Catholic in the Protestant dominated United States. This gives each of them the double vision that contributes to their collaboration.

There is also a special quality about Merchant-Ivory films that defies definition. But Merchant comes to the core of their appeal, ?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.?

Their collaboration goes beyond movies. They all live in the same apartment building on the East Side in Manhattan, though they live in separate apartments. The three artists often begin their day with breakfast at Jhabvala?s house, made by her architect husband, where they discuss the films at hand.

The director and scriptwriter must get the prior approval or ?green light? from the producer for any idea. Once this is done Jhabvala retreats to write the script. Ivory then reads the screenplay scribbling his comments all over it. Meanwhile Merchant travels the world to obtain funding and persuade movie stars to work for a fraction of their usual fee.

One of the things that sets the team apart is the low cost at which they make their films.

Actors are cajoled to work for a fraction of their normal fees. Since they often enjoy working on Merchant-Ivory productions they don?t mind doing so. Merchant?s persuasive powers are also well known. Anthony Hopkins is reputed to work for Merchant because of the fabulous meals he cooks. Actor Hugh Grant admitted recently, ?For my two cents ? and that?s about what he paid me ? I?m proud to have been in one of his films.s.?

Critic Philip Williams writes, ?He exudes an infectious sort of enthusiasm which, you might surmise, has at least a bit to do with his talent for survival in the often turbulent and mercurial waters of independent film production.? One of Merchant?s unsung achievements has been the ability to buck the Hollywood system. Merchant-Ivory makes films for an amazingly low cost. Its recent Cotton Mary, about Anglo-Indians in Kerala in the ?50s, was made for just ten million rupees. This is low even by Indian standards and peanuts for Hollywood. ?In order to survive as an independent producer, you have to concentrate all your time on keeping afloat financially,? he says.

He is known to cut cost dramatically, often making films for a tenth of what they would cost if done by the Hollywood studios. The crew, for instance, would sleep on mattresses in a rented house rather than be put up in a hotel, friends approached for props for free, the shooting often being done in rented villas rather than expensive studio sets.

As an independent producer he has the reputation of being tenacious to the point of being pushy in raising money and then seeing it is spent in the best possible manner. He has been known to visit financiers who refuse to return his calls and ?just sit there like an elephant? till the financier felt compelled to call him in. Merchant says, ?Once I had my toe in, he would find it nearly impossible to say ?no?.?

He is also known to cut corners. In his book he recalls the story of how Shashi Kapoor refused to act in his film Bombay Talkie unless paid for the work done for his earlier film Householder. Merchant recalls with glee that not having money he went to Shashi?s wife Jennifer Kendall, who loaned him the money to pay her husband. He recounts with glee, ?So, in effect, I used Shashi?s own money to settle my debt with him,? though he did settle the payment to Jennifer as soon as possible.

There are several other legends from the Merchant lore. Of how in 1959 he barged into Paul Newman?s dressing room while he was acting on Broadway in a play ?Sweet Bird of Youth,? saying he had come all the way from India to meet him. Later on, Newman saw him hanging around outside the theater and offered him a ride home on his motorcycle.

Ismail Merchant recalls, ?Twenty-eight years later, I was sitting in a restaurant with Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, discussing plans for their roles in Mr. And Mrs. Bridge, and I reminded Paul of that episode. Mr. Newman laughed and said, ?Oh, you are that crazy Indian.?

For all the international acclaim he has received he is happiest with the Indian award of Padma Bhushan. He told Khabar, ?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..? o

[Written by Chitra Bonam. Additional reporting by the Khabar team]

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