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[R.I.P.] Ismail Merchant - Iconic and Prominent Film Producer (5/25/05)

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  • madchinaman
    Ismail Merchant, 68; Producer of Stylish, Popular Period Dramas By John Horn, Times Staff Writer http://www.latimes.com/news/local/state/la-me-
    Message 1 of 1 , May 26, 2005
      Ismail Merchant, 68; Producer of Stylish, Popular Period Dramas
      By John Horn, Times Staff Writer

      Ismail Merchant, the Indian-born producer of some of the most
      acclaimed film adaptations of literary works, from "Howards End"
      to "The Remains of the Day," died Wednesday in a London hospital, a
      day after he underwent surgery for stomach ulcers. He was 68.

      With longtime collaborators James Ivory as director and Ruth Prawer
      Jhabvala as screenwriter, Merchant not only adapted great books by
      Henry James, E.M. Forster and V.S. Naipaul, but also helped
      establish the careers of a new wave of renowned English actors,
      including Hugh Grant ("Maurice"), Helena Bonham-Carter ("A Room with
      a View") and Emma Thompson ("Howards End").

      Although Merchant never won an Academy Award (his films received 31
      Oscar nominations, including three best picture selections), he
      helped teach modern American audiences they need not fear period

      "Merchant Ivory" became something of an art house brand name, a
      presentation credit suggesting erudition and stateliness, yet not at
      the cost of stodginess. The films were populated with articulate,
      passionate and intelligent characters; even with so many tightly
      stitched corsets, Merchant's movies could actually be sexy. Though
      the movies looked expensive, they cost a fraction of the budget of
      major studio films.

      As his works won over critics and moviegoers, Merchant and his
      partners helped paved the way for the rise of independent
      distributors Miramax Films and Sony Pictures Classics, the latter of
      which distributed Merchant's "Howards End" as its first release.

      The Merchant-Ivory model was soon widely imitated, as filmmakers as
      diverse as Martin Scorsese ("The Age of Innocence") and Ang Lee
      ("Sense and Sensibility") turned their cameras toward classic books.

      In a sense, Merchant was breathing fresh life into a genre that
      flourished in the earliest days of show business, when literary
      fiction — not comic book superheroes — were a favored source

      "He actually tapped into and revived a great Hollywood tradition,"
      said James Schamus, a co-president of Focus Features and the
      producer of "Sense and Sensibility." "And he set the bar very high.
      These guys did it so well, we were always asking ourselves, 'How can
      we do it better?' "

      In a business where professional marriages last hardly any longer
      than personal ones, Merchant's association with the German-born
      Jhabvala and the American Ivory, who was also Merchant's life
      partner, spanned more than 40 years and yielded as many movies.

      The fruitful collaboration began with 1963's "The Householder,"
      which Merchant produced and Ivory directed from Jhabvala's script of
      her own novel. Merchant's last collaboration with Ivory was "The
      White Countess," starring Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson,
      which is in production and is scheduled to be released this fall.

      "They were the best of friends — a family — and it was the perfect
      professional relationship," Michael Barker, co-president of Sony
      Pictures Classics, said of the filmmaking troika. "Ruth and Jim were
      the artists, and Ismail protected their artistry at all costs. He
      kept the suits at bay."

      In one famous showdown, Merchant was so upset over Miramax's plans
      to recut the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film "The Golden Bowl" that he
      raised the money to buy it back from the company. The film was
      ultimately released by Lions Gate Entertainment without Miramax's
      suggested edits.

      "He was the first independent producer," said Richard Hawley,
      executive vice president of Merchant Ivory Productions. In addition
      to raising money for each Merchant Ivory movie, and then selling
      distribution rights, the company distributed other filmmakers'
      movies when no other distributor came forward. Merchant also helped
      restore the works of Indian filmmaking legend Satyajit Ray.

      Merchant is best known for bringing to the screen majestic tales of
      19th century romance and heartbreak, stories overflowing with
      exquisite costumes, polished antiques and strict manners. Yet he
      also produced several more modern tales, including "Mr. and Mrs.
      Bridge," "Le Divorce" and "Slaves of New York," the last of which
      was one of Merchant's few outright flops.

      As a director, he was less successful than he was as a producer,
      making "In Custody," "Cotton Mary," "The Proprietor" and "Mystic

      "People misunderstand," he said in a 2002 interview with The
      Times. "If you wear a costume and you're in a stately home — yes,
      it's a costume drama. But people don't say that it's also a good
      story. Our very first film had a good story, delightful characters
      and wonderful locations. That territory hasn't changed."

      At the time of his death, Merchant was developing "The Goddess." To
      star Tina Turner, the film was to be a modern version of a Bollywood
      musical, the Indian films Merchant watched as a child that cemented
      his love of moviemaking. He also produced "Heights," a modern drama
      opening in June from first-time director Chris Terrio.

      Though many producers serve as hired guns who supervise a movie set,
      Merchant was adept at raising money, wooing distributors and shaping
      a film's marketing and publicity campaign. When "Howards End"
      grossed more than $1 million at a single New York theater, Merchant
      suggested an elaborate celebration at the Plaza Hotel to mark the
      milestone. It turned into a media event.

      "You have to be a super salesman. I remember my college [dean]
      saying I could sell snowballs to Eskimos," Merchant said in the 2002

      "Ismail was relentless about raising money; he would beg, borrow and
      steal," Terrio told The Times on Wednesday. "If he believed in a
      film, he would stop at nothing, and would even put up his New York
      apartment as collateral if he had to. I never met anyone who loved
      movies so much."

      Born in Bombay in 1936 to a family in textiles, Merchant studied
      business at New York University. He co-directed the 1961 live-action
      short film "The Creation of Woman," which was nominated for an
      Academy Award.

      That same year, he met Ivory at a screening of a documentary Ivory
      had made about Indian miniature painting. Soon thereafter, the
      neophytes approached Jhabvala in New Dehli about turning her book
      into a movie, and the team was soon on its way.

      Merchant also was a passionate chef, entertaining cast and crew on
      his movie sets with elaborate meals. "I love to cook — mixing herbs
      and spices and creating something," he said in a 1994 interview.

      "Serving a wonderful meal and a glass of wine can change people's
      outlooks, and it adds to the spirit of life," he said.

      When "Howards End" was shown at the Cannes Festival, Merchant
      welcomed the cast in his villa, cooking their meals throughout the

      Among other cookbooks, he wrote "Passionate Meals: The New Indian
      Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters." He once owned a
      French-Indian restaurant in Manhattan called Pondicherry.

      "I'll be doing this till I go to my grave," Merchant once said of
      producing movies. "It regenerates your youth and energy."

      In addition to Ivory, Merchant is survived by sisters Saherbanu
      Kabadia, Sahida Retiwala, Ruksana Khan and Rashida Bootwala.


      Ismail Merchant films

      Films produced

      • Heights (2004)

      • Le Divorce (2003)

      • Merci Docteur Rey (2002)

      • Refuge (2002)

      • The Golden Bowl (2000)

      • Cotton Mary (1999)

      • A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998)

      • Side Streets (1998)

      • Gaach (1998)

      • Surviving Picasso (1996)

      • Jefferson in Paris (1995)

      • Feast of July (1995)

      • Street Musicians of Bombay (1994)

      • The Remains of the Day (1993)

      • Howards End (1992)

      • The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991)

      • Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990)

      • Slaves of New York (1989)

      • The Perfect Murder (1988)

      • The Deceivers (1988)

      • Sweet Lorraine (1987)

      • Maurice (1987)

      • My Little Girl (1986)

      • A Room with a View (1985)

      • The Bostonians (1984)

      • Heat and Dust (1983)

      • Quartet (1981)

      • Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980)

      • The Europeans (1979)

      • Roseland (1977)

      • Sweet Sounds (1976)

      • Autobiography of a Princess (1975)

      • The Wild Party (1975)

      • Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1974)

      • Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973)

      • Savages (1972)

      • Bombay Talkie (1970)

      • The Guru (1969)

      • Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

      • The Householder (1963)

      Films directed

      • The Mystic Masseur (2001)

      • Cotton Mary (1999)

      • The Proprietor (1996)

      • Lumiere et compagnie (1996)

      • In Custody (1993)

      • Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1974)


      Filmmaker Ismail Merchant passes away

      Filmmaker Ismail Merchant, 68, passed away at 4.30 pm on Wednesday
      at a hospital in London, surrounded by friends and family. He was
      unmarried, and had no children.

      His brother-in-law Waheed Chauhan told rediff.com that Merchant's
      ulcer burst, causing his death. Merchant had recently undergone
      surgery for abdominal ulcers. "His body will be brought to Mumbai in
      about two days for the cremation," Chauhan added.

      'It is with great sadness that Merchant Ivory Productions announces
      that Ismail Merchant, our company founder and beloved producer for
      more than 44 years, has passed away after a brief illness in a
      London hospital where he was working on his latest film, The White
      Countess,' a note on the Merchant Ivory Productions Web site said.
      Merchant co-founded the company with filmmaker James Ivory.

      Merchant was born in Mumbai on Christmas Day in 1936. When he was
      22, he traveled to the US to study business at New York University,
      but was soon sidetracked into the film world.

      Merchant's first film was The Creation of Woman, which was an
      official US entry in the Cannes Film Festival in 1961. The short
      film also earned an Academy Award nomination that year.

      It was en route to Cannes that Merchant met filmmaker Ivory. The
      stated objective of Merchant Ivory Productions was to make 'English-
      language films in India aimed at the international market'.

      In 1963, MIP premiered its first production, The Householder,
      starring Bollywood matinee idol Shashi Kapoor.

      Merchant and Ivory, in tandem with screenwriter Ruth Praver-
      Jhabvala, made close to 40 films together. They won Oscars for such
      efforts as the adaptation of E M Forster's A Room With A View, and
      Howard's End (three Oscars apiece).

      The two went on to earn a place in the Guinness Book of World
      Records for the longest partnership in independent cinema history.

      Merchant's other love was cuisine; he is the author of numerous
      books on cooking, including Ismail Merchant's Indian Cooking and
      Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals.

      He also wrote books on the making of films such as The Deceivers and
      The Proprietor. His last book was My Passage From India: A
      Filmmaker's Jurney from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond

      Merchant was honored 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 (Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters) by the
      French culture ministry.

      The White Countess, which Merchant was working on at the time of his
      death, is a period drama starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave
      and Natasha Richardson. It is set in China.

      Merchant Ivory Productions was also working on The Goddess, a
      musical about Hindu goddess Shakti, starring pop icon Tina Turner
      and with a script by Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay
      Lost And Found.
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