Ismail Merchant, a look through the reel

AN ELGIN EXCLUSIVE FEATURE by SURABHI SUNIL

Madhur Jaffrey, an Indian-born actress, once wrote, “In India, we say that the ability to create flavour is in the hands. Some people just have it. Ismail certainly does.” Though she was talking about his culinary expertise, the very same could be applied to his movies and writings.

"He was the one and truly great maverick producer, a law to himself," Sir Anthony Hopkins

Illustration by Tevy Khou, via hazlitt.net

Ismail Merchant, A man of many talents who also took much care in developing each of them, be it the next on screen production or a bowl of warm lentil soup.

A film aficionado from a young age, Ismail Merchant’s close friendship with Nimmi, an Indian film actress introduced him to studios and the industry in Bombay. Attending her first movie premiere, grew his ambitions for the spotlight and stardom. Developing his love for film at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay; dreams of the screen finally led him to New York. While pursuing a masters the stark contrast of what’s on-screen and reality hit him.A job allowing him to showcase his cooking skills and another as a UN General Assembly messenger later and, with connections being made he raised enough money for his first project ‘The Creation of Woman’. From there on started his illustrious reel journey.
Image by rougesandvagabonds, WordPress Blog
“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!”

A chance encounter at a screening bonded Merchant and James Ivory, birthing Merchant Ivory Productions.

Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and their main collaborator, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala were often called the three pillars of Merchant Ivory Productions and with the success of their first film, The Householder may had even sealed Shashi Kapoor, the lead actor in the film as the fourth.

Image by moviemahal, Google Images

Ruth Jhabvala, the writer thought Shashi Kapoor too handsome for the role of the hapless schoolteacher in The Householder, but he convinced her with his dedication and a middle-class style raw haircut.

Merchant and Ivory first met Shashi Kapoor and the Kendalls when they went to India to film The Householder, their first feature film. They later reunited for Shakespeare Wallah. A story of a travelling family theatre troupe of English actors based of Geoffrey Kendal’s diary accounts of his family and the travelling “Shakespeareana Company” that he kept during 1947, the year of Indian independence.

The Kendal family were the longest staying guests at the Elgin Fairlawn, then known as the Fairlawn Hotel and could be called the gateway to Mr.Merchant’s stay as well during his visits to Kolkata. To him, Kolkata held a deeper meaning because of the Kendal’s and his dear friend Satyajit Ray with whom he has worked multiple times.

Image by Merchant Ivory Productions

Ismail Merchant was a man of charm with a flair for drama. Warren Hoge, writing in The New York Times, recalled that the producer was able to film inside the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles “by draping himself in robes and posing as the Maharajah of Jodhpur. His crew masqueraded as his entourage and, once inside, set up the shoot.”

Having released over 40 films under the Merchant-Ivory banner, 31 of which earned Academy Award nominations under various categories, The ‘Merchant-Ivory’ tag became associated with something far more than a production house. It spoke of films acknowledged as having defined the genre of literate period pieces with character depth, flavour and a look of elegance.

The look of elegance can be credited to Mr.Merchant’s undeniable charm leading to the ability to get shooting sites for little to no money, explaining how these movies were made for far less than a standard Hollywood budget at the time. In a statement to BBC, veteran actor Sir Anthony Hopkins said, “He could charm the birds out of the trees, which had its very positive side (most of the time) and sometimes he could get you to work for nothing.”

Image by @Film Forum-Robin Holland, Twitter

The two men behind the lens, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant nurtured a partnership over the course of 40+ years pushing the boundaries of Independent films in India and presenting it in a new light to the world.

Merchant and Ivory were still in the production of The White Countess, a period drama when Mr Merchant passed away following surgery at the age of 68. Ismail Merchant had the ability to summon vast amusement and share it with his listeners be it through the stories he produced for the screen or through intimate conversations over a plate of impressive food that he himself had cooked up.