May 30, 2005

Maverick Merchant

By: Jerry Brito

Film producer Ismail Merchant told UPI a couple of years ago that he was baffled as to why Hollywood made so many dreadful movies year after year. He wondered “Why people are so thickheaded in the top positions that they can’t see what is really good in a script and what is bad, and they would just take the bad and do the bad ones.”

I’ve often wondered the same thing myself. You can’t always tell beforehand whether a movie will be good or merely okay. But doesn’t one usually know just by a movie’s trailer if it’s going to be terrible?

Of course, Ismail Merchant didn’t bat a thousand himself. Jefferson in Paris was a bit plodding; A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries didn’t quite engage. But, as half of the legendary Merchant-Ivory Productions, Merchant, who died in London last week after stomach surgery at the age of 68, left a legacy few filmmakers could top.

Merchant was born Ismail Noormohammed Abdul Rehman in Bombay, India, on Christmas Day, 1936, to a Muslim textile dealer and his semi-literate wife. He was educated by the Jesuits, and then left India to study business at New York University, where he added Merchant to his name. He had always been interested in the arts, producing theatricals at school, but it was Ingmar Bergman’s classic Smiles of a Summer Night that finally persuaded him to make film his career. He planned to make Indian-themed films from America, but a fateful meeting intervened.

Merchant’s business acumen was apparent from the beginning. To publicize his first film, a 14-minute short called The Creation of Woman, he sent fake press releases claiming a famous Indian producer would be visiting Hollywood. He convinced a theatre to show the film alongside a Bergman feature to get the three days’ showing required for Oscar consideration. It worked-the short was nominated and became the official U.S. entry at the Cannes Film Festival. At the time, Merchant was working nights in the Los Angeles Times classified department.

On his way to France from California, Merchant stopped off in New York and saw a documentary on Indian art called The Sword and the Flute. Startled by the American film’s acute understanding of India, he quickly set up a meeting with its director. Thus, in 1961, began what the Guinness Book of World Records lists as the longest collaboration in film history-and a personal one, too. Merchant was a mere 25 years old.

The screenwriter on Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s first film together-and almost all of their subsequent ones-was novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory,” Ismail Merchant once remarked. “I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American.” Funny then, that they are best known for making what seem to be quintessentially British movies.

Merchant produced almost 50 films. His breakthrough was 1986’s Room with a View, based on the novel by E.M. Forster. It garnered the team their first Best Picture Oscar nomination. The film had all the elements of their most successful collaborations-superb acting talent (Merchant-Ivory regulars include Anthony Hopkins, Maggie Smith, and Helena Bonham Carter, whom Room made a star), gorgeous sets and scenery, an impeccable literary source (they would film two other Forster novels, as well as a few by Henry James), and serious subject matter beneath the surface froth.

Merchant and Ivory helped establish independent filmmaking, blazing a new money trail around the Hollywood studios. They really were the ultimate independents. Not only did they make their movies outside the Hollywood system, with far lower budgets, despite the talent and locations they used. (Merchant had a knack, it was often said, of getting actors to work for peanuts.) Unlike many independent filmmakers, who deal with gritty subject matter, they looked to the universal truths of classic literature. Other filmmakers followed suit. The boom in films with sources like Jane Austen and William Shakespeare (and their progenitors, like Gosford Park) owes much to Merchant-Ivory. So, I’m sure, do sales of Room with a ViewHowards End, and The Remains of the Day. The filmmakers introduced countless people to the joys of these great books. That in itself is a great service.

Merchant and Ivory astutely saw the potential in this almost ready-made material. Great art offers special insight into human nature. It explores the great questions, while not providing easy answers. Of course there are many thoughtful screenwriters right now creating important work that has staying power-Charlie Kaufman, Neil LaBute, Whit Stillman. But a committee of writers trying to come up with a star vehicle for, say, Jennifer Lopez, has a hard time competing with Henry James.

Perhaps Merchant and Ivory weren’t so different from the other independents after all. Forster and James both explored the fate of the outsider, and the clash between convention and emotion, and even the filmmaking duo’s less literary works often contain these themes.

Those films based on more modern material were never as successful as their period pieces, though. Slaves of New YorkSurviving Picasso, and Le Divorce all received mixed reviews. It must have been difficult to experiment outside of the formula that almost always brought them success.

Merchant directed a few films himself. He was also the author of a couple of cookbooks and famous for his weekly curry dinners on set. I once saw him as a guest on a Food Network program, where his well-known charm and humility were both evident.

He died leaving two movies soon to be released. The White Countess, set in 1930s Shanghai, stars Ralph Fiennes and Merchant-Ivory regular Vanessa Redgrave. The Goddess seems a bit more of a departure-it’s a musical with Tina Turner playing a Hindu goddess. Merchant spoke a couple of years ago about another project that he doesn’t seem to have completed. It’s unfortunate, as it seems to herald a return to the broader themes that made Merchant-Ivory a synonym for literate, beautiful films. UPI said the film was to be “a comedy about a rich young Indian couple that buys the most beautiful house in England, and employs a house staff made up entirely of English servants.”

“It’s the reverse idea of how we were ruled by the English,” Merchant said. “Today, England is being run by people who came from the outside. The shops, the restaurants-are all being run by Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis and Africans. The English have even taken to the Indian cuisine.”

Sometimes it is the outsider that can best understand a culture. World cinema lost one of its heroes last week.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is