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Ismail Merchant, the filmmaker who gave the world a new lens to look at Indians

A look back at Ismail Merchant's life & partnership with James Ivory, which produced 50 films, 31 Oscar nominations & 6 Oscars.

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New Delhi: Merchant Ivory Productions — for filmgoers, the name itself sparks memories of gorgeous people in lush locales, engaging in romance and drama, speaking in the English language amid largely Anglo-Indian and English settings.

The two men behind those films — Ismail Merchant and James Ivory — were responsible for pushing the boundaries of independent cinema in India and the US in the 1960s and 1970s.

Of the duo, Ismail Merchant is considered one of India’s most iconic exports among filmmakers, having worked in the US for over four decades. His biggest success lay in introducing a new lens for the world to look at Indians through cinema, along with his partner Ivory.

ThePrint takes a look at his remarkable life and work.


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Move to US

Born Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman on 25 December 1936 in Bombay (now Mumbai), Merchant grew up in modern India’s most politically-charged and chaotic period. But he always found solace in pop culture and entertainment.

He became friends with yesteryear actor Nimmi at a very young age, and through her, was introduced to the world of film and theatre.

However, films remained an idle passion until his early twenties, when he moved to the US to study business management. It was there that he decided to adopt the name Merchant, and seriously began considering making films.

Partnership with Ivory, in films and life

It’s not easy to write about Merchant without mentioning James Ivory, his partner in more ways than one.

The two men first met in 1959, at a screening of James Ivory’s documentary, The Sword and the Flute. They hit it off instantly, and formed a partnership that lasted Merchant’s lifetime in the US. They bonded over their shared love of film, and founded Merchant Ivory Productions in 1961.

At the same time, they were falling in love. The partners never openly spoke about their relationship, but it seemed everyone knew and the press, often, subtly alluded to it too.

It was only after Merchant’s death in 2005 that Ivory opened up about their relationship. “Well, you just wouldn’t,” he said in an interview with The Guardian after the release of Oscar-nominated Call Me By Your Name (2017).

“That is not something that an Indian Muslim would ever say publicly or in print. Ever! You have to remember that Ismail was an Indian citizen living in Bombay, with a deeply conservative Muslim family there. It’s not the sort of thing he was going to broadcast. Since we were so close and lived most of our lives together, I wasn’t about to undermine him.”

Although they hid their love from the world, their 44-year-long partnership was the most successful and long-lasting in the world of entertainment. It even holds a place in the Guiness Book of World Records as the longest partnership in film history.


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The films they made

Under the Merchant Ivory banner, the duo produced and directed over 50 films, which earned them at least 31 Oscar nominations, and six Oscars.

The first of these, The Householder, was made in 1963. It starred Indian actors Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu, and was based on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s book of the same name. It was a huge hit — both with critics and audiences — for a film that was made on a budget of $125,000.

Directed by Ivory and produced by Merchant (like most of their films), the film told the story of a young, newly-married couple, and how they learn to love and respect each other while navigating the difficulties of marriage.

The film sealed Kapoor as the fourth pillar of Merchant Ivory films, alongside their main collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. She wrote close to two dozen screenplays for them, and they adapted many of her books.

Merchant’s most famous productions that were made in India included Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1983). The first of these put the production on the world map.

Merchant Ivory Productions scored its first Oscars win for the Ivory-directed A Room With A View (1985). It was produced by Merchant and written by Jhabvala, based on her own novel. The same team went on to repeat its Oscars triumph in 1993 with Howards End.

Legacy

In 1993 itself, Merchant directed his first feature film, In Custody, based on a book by Anita Desai. The film is still remembered for its complex juxtaposition of modernity and tradition in India.

It was this love for India and everything Indian, even though he lived away, that made Merchant’s films so unique.

The Indian government awarded him a Padma Bhushan, the country’s third highest civilian honour, in 2002.

Merchant, who was fond of cooking, used to cook for his whole cast and crew every Friday. In an obituary by The Economist after his death on 25 May 2005, the magazine wrote: “His own gifts lay elsewhere—a combination, perhaps unique in modern cinema, of taste, discipline and financial acumen. He also made possibly the best curry ever served up by a producer, and would cook it for the whole cast and crew on a shoot, every Friday, as if they were one big family.”

According to his wishes, he was buried in India, next to his ancestors.


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