Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 85

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-born novelist whose fiction was set largely in India and who gained her greatest acclaim as a two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter with the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team, died April 3 at her home in New York City. She was 85.

She had a pulmonary disorder, said James Ivory, the film director who had worked with Mrs. Jhabvala since the early 1960s. Besides the Academy Award, her honors included the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary honor.

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Mrs. Jhabvala’s life took many unusual turns, beginning with her exile to England from her childhood home in Germany, but none was more surprising than her journey into the world of filmmaking.

After moving to New Delhi with her Indian-born husband in the 1950s, Mrs. Jhab­vala (pronounced JAHB-vah-lah) wrote a series of novels and short stories set in her new homeland. In 1961, she received a phone call asking if she would write a screenplay of her novel “The Householder.”

The call came from Ismail Merchant, a young producer from India who was making his first feature film. The director was Ivory, an American who had previously made only documentaries. Mrs. Jhabvala accepted the project, despite knowing almost nothing about screenwriting, and the film was produced in 1963.

Merchant, Ivory and Mrs. Jhabvala formed what would become one of the most enduring creative teams in moviemaking history.

“Nobody tried to push anybody around,” Ivory said in an interview. “In any artistic collaboration, you have to be above ego. It was the greatest possible privilege for me to be working with a real writer and someone I liked.”

Together for more than 40 years, until Merchant’s death in 2005, the trio made more than 20 films, including several genteel dramas based on the novels of Henry James and E.M. Forster. Mrs. Jhabvala won Oscars in 1987 and 1993 for her screenplays of “A Room With a View” and “Howards End,” both adapted from Edwardian-era novels by Forster.

Her literate, subtly shaded screenplays were lauded for their depictions of people caught in social worlds circumscribed by manners and emotional restraint. She was nominated for a third Academy Award for screenwriting for “The Remains of the Day” (1993), from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro about the life of a butler in an English manor house between the two world wars.

“Ruth’s a genius, really,” actress Emma Thompson, who starred in “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “She’s a novelist, so she understands the art of adapting novels better than most anyone else. She understands the process, the ‘buzz of implication’ that surrounds words. . . . Ruth understands it completely.”

In both film and fiction, Mrs. Jhabvala examined the theme of cultural dislocation, of outsiders becoming involved in — and sometimes victimized by — an exotic, foreign environment.

She often wrote of the bewilderment of Westerners encountering life in India. Several female characters in her fiction became caught up in ill-fated love affairs or were swept along by currents of a world they didn’t understand.

In her 1975 novel “Heat and Dust,” Mrs. Jhabvala wrote about a British woman’s travels in India as she sought to understand the life of an aunt who deserted her husband in the 1920s after falling in love with an Indian prince.

“During my first few months here, I kept a journal so I have some record of my early impressions,” the first-person narrator said in the novel. “If I were to try to recollect them now, I might not be able to do so. They are no longer the same because I myself am no longer the same. India always changes people, and I have been no exception.”

The book won the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary honor, and was made into a 1983 Merchant-Ivory film starring Greta Scacchi.

Mrs. Jhabvala’s early books, which often portrayed the lives of large Indian families, were compared favorably with the novels of manners of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh. Later, as she adopted a more critical tone toward an India beset by poverty and inertia, she faced more criticism from her Indian readers.

“Nobody else in India had that clarity of vision of the new society, or that acuteness of observation,” novelist Anita Desai told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2005. “It’s very sad that there was, and continues to be, resentment towards a foreigner writing about India with such frankness and irony.”

Ruth Prawer was born May 7, 1927, in Cologne, Germany, to a prosperous Jewish family. Her Polish-born father was a lawyer who used his Polish passport to flee with his family to England in April 1939.

Her father, who lost about 40 members of his family in the Holocaust, committed suicide in 1948. Her brother, S.S. Prawer, became a scholar of German literature at the University of Oxford.

Cast from one strange land to another, she was forced to observe the actions and intentions of the people around her, and from an early age she was determined to be a writer.

After graduating in 1951 from the University of London, she married Cyrus S.H. Jhabvala, an Indian-born architect she met in London, and moved to New Delhi.

“As soon as I got here, I began writing about India,” she told the New York Times in 1973. “Perhaps I loved it then because of my being Jewish. The Indian family life, the humor was closer to the Jewish world I knew than the Anglo-Saxon world.”

After winning the Booker Prize in 1975, Mrs. Jhabvala moved to New York. She received a MacArthur fellowship, a so-called genius grant, in 1984 and became a U.S. citizen in 1986.

Mrs. Jhabvala began to incorporate elements of her new country into her work, writing the screenplay for “Roseland,” a 1977 Merchant-Ivory film about dancers at a New York ballroom. She adapted a pair of novels by Evan S. Connell for “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” a 1990 film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as a repressed Midwestern couple in the 1930s.

Her most controversial work came in 1995 with her original screenplay for “Jefferson in Paris,” in which Nick Nolte portrayed Thomas Jefferson as an envoy to France in the 1780s. The film depicted a long-rumored love affair between Jefferson and his young slave, Sally Hemings.

Defenders of Jefferson’s legacy were incensed and threatened to boycott the film’s distributor, Disney. Mrs. Jhabvala, who often depicted interracial romance in her books about India, trusted her research and her intuition.

“Jefferson was a lonely widower, and in Paris he was very homesick,” she told the Guardian in 1995. “Sally was his wife’s half-sister . . . it would almost have been strange if something had not happened.”

In the years since, DNA tests confirmed a connection between Jefferson and Hemings. Many scholars who once doubted Jefferson’s paternity have conceded that he was probably the father of Hemings’s six children.

“If the film came out now, no one would turn a hair, but then people were outraged,” Mrs. Jhabvala said in 2005. “To me, it seemed a terrible thing that they kept slaves, but not such a terrible thing that families were intermingled.”

Mrs. Jhabvala’s husband eventually joined her in New York, but they often returned to India for visits. He survives, along with three daughters, Renana Jhabvala of Delhi, Ava Wood of Colchester, England, and Firoza Jhabvala of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

Mrs. Jhabvala’s final work of fiction, the 2012 short-story collection “A Lovesong for India,” was praised by Washington Post critic Marie Arana as “stylish, unpredictable [and] singing with humor.”

Mrs. Jhabvala’s last screenplay was for the 2009 film “The City of Your Final Destination,” about a graduate student’s journey through South America to write a biography.

Reflecting on what held the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala team together for so long, Ivory said Mrs. Jhabvala’s uprooted past was central to her artistic point of view.

“Aren’t we all displaced, in a way?” Ivory said. “We were, all of us, pretty much outsiders looking at something that had gone on in a foreign land. We were all displaced.”

 
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