[R.I.P.] Ismail Merchant - Iconic and Prominent Film Producer (5/25/05)
- 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
"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
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
Le Divorce (2003)
Merci Docteur Rey (2002)
The Golden Bowl (2000)
Cotton Mary (1999)
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998)
Side Streets (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)
My Little Girl (1986)
A Room with a View (1985)
The Bostonians (1984)
Heat and Dust (1983)
Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980)
The Europeans (1979)
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)
Bombay Talkie (1970)
The Guru (1969)
Shakespeare Wallah (1965)
The Householder (1963)
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.