indian cinema heritage foundation

Ismail Merchant

  • Real Name: Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman
  • Born: 25 December 1936 (..)
  • Died: 25 May 2005
  • Parents: Hazra (née Memon) and Noor Mohamed Rehman

Film producer, director and screenwriter, Ismail Merchant is known for some of the most popular films of recent years such as Heat and Dust (1982), A Room With a View (1985), The Remains of the Day (1993) and The Golden Bowl (2000). Working in collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions which included director and Merchant’s partner James Ivory as well as screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, he was, for more than 40 years, one of the most unorthodox but successful independent filmmakers in Hollywood. His key strength as a producer was his knack for funding his various projects and “his ability to produce films for several million dollars less than those of his contemporaries”. Merchant Ivory Films became known for their lavish costumes, high production values and minute budgets. He was described as having “the cheek of the devil and the charm of an angel.” He regarded his success as the result of “a passion for making films, not for making money.” He is the producer of more than 40 films, garnering 31 Oscar nominations, including three for Best Picture. He also directed The Mystic Masseur (2001) based on V S Naipaul's novel, Cotton Mary (1999), The Proprietor (1996), Lumière and Company (1995), In Custody (1994) based on Anita Desai's novel, the TV film The Courtesans of Bombay (1983), and the short Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1974). He is also the author of several books, including the best-selling Passionate Meals for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters. Merchant was honoured with the Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Bard's College, New York. For his outstanding contribution to cinema, he was given the title of Commandeur de l/Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 2002, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian award. He was also a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence. 

Born Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman on 25 December 1936 in Bombay, he was the son of a wealthy textile importer. Growing up bilingual in Gujarati (the local language) and Urdu (which his family spoke at home), he attended a Muslim school to learn Arabic and the Koran, and later attended an English Jesuit college to study history and maths. When he was 11, his family was caught up in the trauma of the partitioning of India. However, his father, a president of the Muslim League, refused to move to Pakistan. 

His passion for films was born during the time he attended St Xavier's in Bombay; it was a love that would last a lifetime. He originally wanted to become an actor. A close friend of the film star Nimmi, he received several modelling jobs and worked as an extra. At college, he would organise student dramas, financing them by selling programme space. Later he would recount, “I’d get two beautiful girls, and we would go round in a big car to various companies. Out of hundreds of doors you knocked on, maybe 20 would buy space.”

Upon graduating in 1958, he moved immediately to New York. While he began a part-time MBA, during the day he worked as a messenger for the United Nations. He would later reveal that he used his job as an opportunity to persuade the Indian delegates to back his various film projects. As he put it, “The UN dining room became a platform for my raising funds for my movie. I was not intimidated by anyone or anything.”

His persistence paid off and he debuted as a film producer with a short feature entitled The Creation of Woman (1961). Directed by Charles F Schwep, the film was considered highly unusual as it took the story of creation from the book of Genesis and blended it with creation stories of Hinduism. Merchant took a gamble and paid for the film to be shown in a cinema long enough for it to be eligible for Academy Award consideration. It paid off when the film received a nomination in the best short category and was entered in the Cannes Film Festival of 1961.

On his way to Cannes, he was invited to a screening of The Sword and the Flute (1959), directed by James Ivory. The two became friends, and later that year partnered to form Merchant Ivory Productions. The Householder (1963) was their first film together. Using his contacts with Columbia Pictures, Merchant propelled The Householder to become the first Indian film to be distributed worldwide. A comedy-drama directed by Ivory, it starred Shashi Kapoor, Leela Naidu and Durga Khote. It revolved around a young Indian newlywed who finds his independent wife troublesome and seeks help and advice from his overbearing mother, a supposedly worldly-wise friend, an American seeker of enlightenment and a swami. It was written by novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala adapted from her novel of the same name; it was the start of a long-term association with novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who would script most Merchant Ivory films.  

Merchant went on to secure Hollywood backing for Merchant Ivory Production’s subsequent productions. These include Shakespeare Wallah (1966), which told the story of a family troupe of English actors in India. They travel around the towns and villages giving performances of Shakespearean plays. Through their travels we see the changing face of India as the old is replaced by the new, maharajas become hotel owners, sports become more important than culture and the theatre is replaced by ‘Bollywood’ films. The film starred Shashi Kapoor, Geoffrey Kendal, and the young Felicity Kendal, making her a star. 

The Guru, his production of 1969 was a comedy depicting the travels of Tom Pickle, Britain's top pop artiste, to Bombay, India, in the 1960s to learn to play the sitar from the famous maestro Ustad Zafar Khan. 

The following year, his production Bombay Talkie (1970) released, starring Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendal. A romantic drama, the plot revolved around Lucia Lane, an English writer by way of the US, who arrives in Bombay to watch the filming of one of her novels. Nearing middle age, she has had several failed marriages, and is lonely and self-absorbed. Then she grows interested in the film's leading man, Vikram, who is younger than her, married, and building a career as a matinee idol.

Through the 1970s, Merchant continued to finance numerous productions written by Jhabvala and directed by James Ivory. While some of their films were still based in India, such as Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (1978), most of his films now originated in the United States and were aimed at an international market. They received mixed reviews. For instance, films such as Roseland (1977) were appreciated by critics but were largely given the miss by the public. Others, like The Wild Party (1975) and The Autobiography of a Princess (1975), barely received any attention from both critics and public.

It was towards the end of the 1970s that Merchant Ivory developed a successful formula for their ‘studied, slow-moving pieces’. Merchant convinced Jhabvala to adapt The Europeans (1979) for the screen. Success smiled on thereafter. Period films from the Merchant Ivory banner gained popularity for their attention to detail and opulent sets. His production Heat and Dust (1983) starred Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, Christopher Cazenove, and Shashi Kapoor. It revolved around Anne who is investigating the life of her grand-aunt Olivia, whose destiny has always been shrouded with scandal. As Anne delves into the history of her grand-aunt, she is led to reconsider her own life. The Bostonians (1984), which followed, depicted a Boston feminist and a conservative Southern lawyer contending for the heart and mind of a beautiful and bright girl unsure of her future. Starring Christopher Reeve, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Tandy, it was nominated for two Academy awards.

A Room With a View (1985), which he would later dub his favourite film, told the tale of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) who shares a brief romance with George Emerson in Florence. Yet, as she tries to move on with her life and look for marriage elsewhere, can she truly forget the events of that summer? The film received universal critical acclaim and was a box-office success. At the 59th Academy Awards, it was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won three: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. It also won five British Academy Film Awards and a Golden Globe. In 1999, the British Film Institute placed A Room with a View 73rd on its list of the top 100 British films. The film was the first of a series of EM Forster novel adaptations which included Maurice (1987) and Howard's End (1992). Notably, the latter, which also won three Oscars, cost only $8 million to produce, undercutting comparable productions by approximately $20 million. 

In 1991 Merchant was again approached by Columbia, to produce The Remains of the Day, from Kazuo Ishiguro's novel. Columbia believed the project could cost $30 million; Merchant produced the film for $11.5 million, including the cost of hiring Anthony Hopkins. The film revolved around a butler who sacrifices body and soul to service in the years leading up to World War I, only to realise too late how misguided his loyalty was to his lordly employer. The film was a critical and box office success and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

Other films he would go on to produce include the historical drama Jefferson in Paris (1995), Surviving Picasso (1996), A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), The Golden Bowl (2000), The Divorce (2003), and The White Countess (2005). 

Merchant turned to directing in the early 1990s, making his feature film directorial debut in 1993 with In Custody. Starring Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri, the film was based on Anita Desai's 1984 Booker Prize-nominated novel In Custody. The film depicted Deven (Om Puri), whose position as a professor of Hindi at a local college is only a means to an end. His first love is the Urdu language and in particular Urdu poetry. Deven's multiple (and often stymied) attempts to interview the great Urdu poet, Nur (Shashi Kapoor), act as a metaphor for the clash between modernisation and tradition.

His directorial The Proprietor (1996) was a drama revolving around an expatriated French novelist (Jeanne Moreau) who returns to Paris when she learns that her childhood home is being placed on the auction block. What she doesn't count on is that she has to confront many old issues dating back to her childhood and bringing herself full circle to her present-day life.

He would go on to direct Cotton Mary (1999), about an Anglo-Indian nurse working in a white household in the 1950s. Starring Greta Scacchi, Madhur Jaffrey and James Wiby, it depicted a British family trapped between culture, tradition and the colonial sins of the past.

He also directed The Mystic Masseur (2001), having persuaded VS Naipaul to consent to an adaptation of his novel. A comedy-drama set in 1950s Trinidad, it told the tale of a frustrated writer who supports himself as a masseur - and soon becomes a revered mystic and politico. 

He was later working in China, on a film called The White Countess (2005). Set in 1930s Shanghai, it revolved around a blind American diplomat who develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband’s aristocratic family.

If Merchant was known to be close-fisted when it came to his film budgeting, he was diametrically opposite as a host – he was famous for his opulent private parties. Among his memorable parties, is the picnic that he took the entire cast of Heat and Dust to, at a private palace in India. His Saturday night curry parties were also regular events on all his productions. His fame as a cook saw him offered the opportunity to write cookery books; he published Ismail Merchant's Indian Cooking and Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals. He was equally known for his beautiful manners and perfect dress sense.

Merchant never married, though he maintained that he was "a family man" in every sense. While he had several nieces and nephews, he insisted that his bond with Ivory and Jhabvala (both of whom had apartments in the same building as he) was identical to that of a family. “Our lives are knitted together, and our films are knitted together,” he would say.

He penned his memoir - My Passage From India: A Filmmakers Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond, which was hailed as “a fabulous book of dreams and journeys and high achievements.  The simple but mesmerizing style of the narrative is the perfect introduction to a man who has become a legend from Bombay to Hollywood,” by Geordie Greig, editor of Tatler. Author Anita Desai wrote of his autobiography, “The lines he writes would be the envy of any novelist: he is incapable of writing one that is dull, slack or lifeless.  The story of his life is the stuff of fiction but no fiction writer could have imagined or written it.”

Ismail Merchant passed away on 25 May 2005 in Westminster, England aged 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers. He was buried at Bada Qabrastan, Marine Lines, Mumbai in keeping with his wish to be buried with his ancestors.



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  • Filmography (1)