Ismail Merchant, of Merchant-Ivory Films, Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005

Ismail Merchant, 68, the entrancing hustler who forged a singular film career producing ornate costume dramas such as "A Room With a View," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day," died May 25 at a hospital in London. He had recent surgery for abdominal ulcers.

The Indian-born Mr. Merchant formed one of the most enduring partnerships in film production, with American director James Ivory and German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

For four decades, the three were bound by a respect for worldliness and taste. Their literate, lovingly told but sometimes-ponderous films were favorites of art-house dwellers who yearned for more than babes, bullets and heroic grunting. To some, they were too precious; director Alan Parker called Merchant-Ivory movies the "Laura Ashley school of film-making."

"A Room With a View" (1985), made for $3 million and grossing $60 million, was credited with spurring a revival of intricately detailed period pieces. The story was based on an E.M. Forster tale about a young Englishwoman who visits Florence and comes to an agonized decision about her future. Mr. Merchant was characteristically boastful of its transformation to film.

"E.M. Forster sold only 50,000 books in his lifetime," he told a British reporter in 2003. "After we filmed 'A Room With a View' . . . sales went up to 6 million."

Mr. Merchant was the business and promotional ballast of the trio, and he was revered for his gusto and passion. Badgering, bullying, bluffing -- all in the name of art -- was his modus operandi. He was known to have done everything from steal props when he was working on a shoestring budget to bailing a star out of jail.

His most famous escapade occurred during the making of "The Proprietor" (1996), a rare occasion when he directed. To gain access to the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles, he posed as the Maharajah of Jodhpur with his movie crew trailing as his entourage to circumvent a ban on filming. Mr. Merchant was confident that the real maharajah, his friend, would have found it amusing.

"Listen, in life you have to have total confidence," the producer once said. "If you hesitate you won't succeed. You must have self-belief. If you do, then others also believe in you."

Mr. Merchant and his frequent collaborators made about 40 films together and received three Academy Award nominations for best picture: for "A Room With a View," "Howards End" (1992) and "The Remains of the Day" (1993).

Their other projects included "The Europeans" (1979), "Maurice" (1987), "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" (1990) and "Jefferson in Paris" (1995).

Because of their reputation for top production values, they attracted towering talent, including Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Newman. Many agreed to work for far less money than they could command, an accomplishment credited to Mr. Merchant's vision and powers of persuasion.

Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman was born in Bombay on Dec. 25, 1936. His father, a textile dealer who also had interests in racehorses and sports cars, dreamed of a professional life for his son and enrolled him in Muslim and Jesuit schools.

He grew more occupied by a new discovery, cinema. He was escorted to the film studios by a family friend, the sultry actress Nimmi.

"I guess Nimmi was my first crush," he said in 2003. "One time, I was in her green Cadillac convertible going to a premiere. As we drove past the crowds, we were showered by thousands of marigolds. It was raining flowers, and it was magical. I wanted this kind of appreciation, and that's when I decided to make films."

While studying at St. Xavier's College in Bombay, he became an impresario. Changing his surname to Merchant -- "Because my dad dealt in textiles, everyone called him Mr. Merchant; the name just stuck" -- he orchestrated campus variety shows and impressed many with his sales gusto.

In 1958, he enrolled for a master's degree in business administration at New York University. Courses become secondary as he discovered the wealth of art films available to him in New York's movie houses, from Ingmar Bergman to Satyajit Ray, the great Indian director whom he had never before seen.

Over a furious weekend, he made his first film, "The Creation of Woman" (1960). It was 14 minutes long and had an Indian cast that included the classically trained actor Saeed Jaffrey. He left for Hollywood and sent out a news release announcing the arrival of a major Indian producer -- namely himself.

He persuaded a Los Angeles theater owner to twin his film with Bergman's "The Devil's Eye." Only by running a film at least three days in a commercial setting could it qualify for Oscar consideration; Mr. Merchant's film was nominated for best short subject in 1961.

About this time, he stopped in New York and, through Jaffrey, was introduced to Ivory, a young documentary director. They filmed Jhabvala's comic novel about newlyweds, "The Householder" (1963), which premiered at the home of John Kenneth Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador to India. His subsequent films -- including "Shakespeare-Wallah" (1965), about an acting troupe, and "Savages" (1972), a satire of manners -- did not find much of an audience anywhere. Still, by Mr. Merchant's lights, his success had less to do with financial windfalls than in scoring a film-distribution contract with Columbia Pictures.

His working relationships with Ivory and Jhabvala were famously easy. Each went about his defined role: Jhabvala writing, Ivory directing and Mr. Merchant acting as fundraiser and protector from outside influences.

In recent years, the team deviated from its costume dramas and made, for example, "Le Divorce" (2003), a frothy comedy with Kate Hudson. At Mr. Merchant's death, the three were reportedly working on "The Goddess," a musical about a Hindu goddess starring Tina Turner, as well as "The White Countess," a period drama set in China with Ralph Fiennes and Redgrave.

He wrote a memoir, "My Passage From India," a blithe account of his career. Recounting a film that was not a hit, he wrote, "I was, as usual, ahead of my time."

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