A Room with a View
“It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory. I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!” Ismail Merchant commenting on his partnership with filmmaker James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Four-time Oscar nominee Bombay-born film producer Ismail Merchant (born in 1936, died in 2005) was most famous for his fruitful, long-term affiliation with Merchant Ivory Productions, which included the California-born director James Ivory and German/Indian novelist-screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. First teaming up for The Householder (1963), which became the first Indian picture to be distributed internationally by a major American studio, they attained huge success with A Room with a View (1986), which received eight Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nomination for Merchant. The film also won Merchant and Ivory a BAFTA award. They further forged success with Howards End (1992), which collected nine Oscar nominations and also a BAFTA award, and The Remains of the Day (1993), which earned eight Oscar nominations. On his own, Merchant picked up his first Academy Award nomination for his work in the short film The Creation of Woman (1960).
Besides his administrative duties, Merchant also had a sporadic side career as a director. After making a short film, Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1974), and a documentary, The Courtesans of Bombay (1983), he switched to full-length features with In Custody (1994), The Proprietor (1996), Cotton Mary (1999) and The Mystic Masseur (2001). In Custody won National Awards from the Government of India for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Costume and Best Production Design.
Outside the spotlight, Merchant, who opened two restaurants in New York City: Bombay Bistro in 1993, and the French-Indian Pondicherry in 1998, was also known as the best-selling author of his highly successful cookbook, Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine. His love of cooking can also be found in his other books like Ismail Merchant’s Florence, Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals and Ismail Merchant’s Paris: Filming and Feasting in France. He also penned several books on filmmaking, including Hullabaloo in Old Jeypur, about the making of the film The Deceivers, and Once Upon a Time… The Proprietor, about the making of The Proprietor.
Childhood and Family:
Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman, who would later be famous as Ismail Merchant, was born on December 25, 1936, in Bombay, Maharashtra, India. His father was Noormohamed Haji Abdul Rehman, a Mumbai Memon textile trader, and his mother was Hazra Memon. Upon receiving his BA from St Xavier’s College in Bombay, India, 22-year-old Ismail moved to the United States to study at New York University, from which he earned an M.B.A. He was married to Parmesh Merchant.
While producing 2005’s The White Countess, Ismail became ill and died unrepentantly on May 25, 2005. He was 68.
The Remains of the Day
Indian-born Ismail Merchant had his first taste of show business when he was still a child with a walk-on part in a Bombay film. Arriving in New York City at age 22, he co-produced his first short movie, The Creation of Woman, two years later. Based on Indian myth and narrated by Saeed Jaffrey, the 14-minute musical was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject, Live Action Subjects, an honor he shared with the film’s director, Charles F. Schwep. After the success, in May 1961, Merchant co-founded a production company called Merchant Ivory Productions (MIP), along with James Avery, with the original intention of making English-language films in India for the international market. He met the Oregon-raised director in New York City at a showing of Ivory’s second short/documentary, The Sword and the Flute (1959), also narrated by Saeed Jaffrey.
With the release of The Householder (1963), starring Indian artist Shashi Kapoor and based on a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who also wrote the screenplay, Merchant and Ivory professionally started their lucrative long-running partnership in the cinematic industry. Thanks to Merchant’s fiscal and marketing proficiency as a producer, the movie received international distribution and was regarded as the first Indian-made film to be distributed by a foremost American company, Columbia Pictures. They followed the film up with the based-on-true story Shakespeare Wallah (1965), about a group of English actors in India. The attention the film earned at its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival further boosted their reputations. In 1969, they produced The Guru, an indie-comedy that became their first American-finance feature. In both Shakespeare Wallah and The Guru, Merchant also appeared in front of the camera as an actor, appearing as a theater owner in the first and an emcee in the latter.
Merchant continued to produce such films as Bombay Talkie (1970), a documentary for BBC-TV, Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972) and Savages (1972) before making his directorial debut with the short Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1974), which he co-produced with Ivory. After the project, he and Ivory produced pictures like The Wild Party (1975) and Roseland (1977), which brought a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination for actress Lilia Skala. Their 1979 The Europeans was based on a novel by Henry James.
Returning to the director’s chair, Merchant helmed the documentary Courtesans of Bombay (1983), which he also scripted with Ivory and Jhabvala. The same year also saw Merchant and Ivory return to their Indian roots with Heat and Dust, adapted by Jhabvala from her novel. The effort paid off when the film earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Film. However, it was A Room with a View (1986), based on an E.M. Forster novel, that provided extensive attention for Merchant when the comedy/romance was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and also won a BAFTA in the same category. The film also brought a Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Oscar for Jhabvala, another nomination for Ivory for his direction, in addition to several other Oscar honors. Merchant and Ivory also shared a BAFTA award.
In 1987, Merchant executive produced My Little Girl, a first film without Ivory that was produced, directed and scripted by Connie Kaiserman. Later that same year, he enjoyed critical success with Ivory’s homosexual-themed Maurice, which was again adapted from a book by Forster, but had to deal with disappointment with Slaves of New York (1989), based on the stories by Tama Janowitz, who also served as a scriptwriter. After working on Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990) and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991), Merchant proved he was back in the saddle again with the Emma Thompson vehicle Howards End (1992), a third adaptation from a Foster book. The drama collected nine Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nomination for Merchant, and also netted a BAFTA for Best Film (shared with Ivory). The producer further bolstered his fame in the following year with The Remains of the Day (1993), which was based on a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. The drama-romance, starring Howards End stars Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, received eight Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
Still in 1993, Merchant made his feature directorial debut with In Custody, a comedy set in Bhopal, India, that won over most critics. He had a setback with his follow up The Proprietor (1996), a disappointing drama starring Jeanne Moreau and Sean Young. Despite the negative reviews he earned for directing the movie, Merchant returned to the director’s chair for the 1999 period drama Cotton Mary and 2001’s The Mystic Masseur. Meanwhile, he continued to serve as producer for Merchant-Ivory’s flop Jefferson in Paris (1995), Surviving Picasso (1996) and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998), which netted an Independent Spirit nomination for Best Picture, and the James Ivory-helmed The Golden Bowl (2000), adapted from Henry James’ novel.
Before his death, Merchant executive produced writer-director Narain Jashanmal’s Refuge (2002) under the Park & 60 Second Productions banner, and the Andrew Litvack-directed Merci Docteur Rey (2002). He also produced Avery’s Divorce, Le (2003), starring Kate Hudson, and Chris Terrio’s Heights (2004). His last project was The White Countess (2005), directed by Ivory and scripted by Kazuo Ishiguro.