Gautaman Bhaskaran
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© Copyright 2004





Ismail Merchant: The film behind the movie


Born: December 25 1936
Died: May 25 2005


Ismail Merchant was a free spirit. He just loved life in all its many splendoured form. I still remember him at Cannes’ Grand Hotel years ago ordering melon for lunch when the choicest of wines, cheese and other goodies were spread out on the table. He was in a spotless white, khadher churidhar kurta with a faceful of smile and a heartful of cheer.

That was not my first take on him. Earlier, I had seen him in snow-swept Berlin inviting movie critic and writer Amita Malik and me to a warm Indian dinner. Some years later, he had cooked delicious Indian food for an army of hungry souls at his impressive Cannes villa overlooking a picture postcard.

Ismail Merchant Anything Else premiere Venice Film Festival
Ismail Merchant
But, it was not Merchant the cook that I knew so well. It was Merchant the celluloid maverick that I was extremely familiar with. He had first vowed me in the late 1960s with his “Shakespeare Wallah”. A schoolboy then, I had been mesmerised by Shashi Kapoor’s “first screen kiss” in a movie where Merchant himself had a small role as a theatre owner.

Very few must be aware that that much like Christian Dior, whose mother wanted him to be a political envoy rather than a couturier, Ismail’s father had hoped that his son would be a doctor or barrister. So, the senior Merchant gave the boy the best of education, first at the St Xavier’s College in Mumbai and later at New York University, where Ismail did a Masters programme in Business Administration.

Maybe this degree helped Merchant to become an ace businessman, whose heart lay in cinema, the first pangs of which he felt while he was at college. There he organised variety shows, exhibiting a flair for show business. One of Merchant’s favourite lines to me was: “Cinema is all about telling a good story”.

He understood the enormous appeal that lay in the narrative, and along with director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, created a canvas of magnificence. Opulent sets, extraordinary costumes and finest of actors -- pushed by wonderful scripts and great pieces of literature -- gladdened the eye and the mind. This unique partnership – where a Muslim, a Christian and Jew came together to make mostly period dramas set in India with largely white actors – lasted 44 years. Together they created such lauded movies as the E.M. Forster adaptations "A Room With a View" (1985), “Maurice” (1987) and "Howards End" (1992) as well as 1993's "The Remains of the Day," based on the Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

The three made more than 40 films beginning with the 1962 “The Householder” (adapted from a Jhabvala novel), set in India, to the latest, the 2003 “Le Divorce”, a hit in the art house circuit. They had garnered 31 Academy Award nominations, including three for Best Picture, winning six Oscars, one among them being for the Best Actress (Emma Thompson for “Howards End”)

The team has just completed its latest period film, “The White Countess”, written by Ishiguro, and starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. When Merchant died recently in London, he and the others were preparing to make a musical, “The Goddess” with Tina Turner as Hindu goddess Shakti.

Merchant also directed some movies that included “In Custody”, “The Proprietor”, “Cotton Mary” and most recently in 2002 “The Mystic Masseur” (based on a V.S. Naipaul novel). However, these were not acclaimed, and there were many, including critics, who felt that Merchant was best as the man who could organise funds, get celebrity actors to work for just about nothing and get the production sailing, often on humour and hot piping food!

Merchant might never have got into the tinsel world had it not been for actress Nimmi, who befriended him “as a companion and younger brother” and took him to studios. Later, a chance meeting with James Ivory en route to the Cannes International Film Festival got the company and the camera clicking. For over four decades. And now with Merchant gone, will Ivory and Jabvala be able to continue with the magic that Ismail helped create?

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated June 3 2005)


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