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.