The star of a brand
"WHAT rabid dog has bitten you, that you should take off on such a crazy scheme'' yells the father when he discovers his 16-year-old son had taken off surreptitiously from Bombay to Goa in a friend's car and returned by bus, leaving the broken down vehicle on the highway.
The same madness continued to bite Ismail Merchant all his life, propelling him into pioneering adventures in producing and directing films. Bollywood star Nimmi had sparked the first obsession. Years later, reminded of the young Ismail's visit to his room backstage after a Broadway show, Hollywood matinee idol Paul Newman was to exclaim, "So YOU were that crazy Indian!"
Without that craziness, films so ahead of their times like "The Householder" and "Shakespearewallah" could not have been made, nor could the adventurer continue on the journey after box office failures like "Bombay Talkies" and "The Deceivers" to shape classics ("A Room with a View", "Howards' End" and "The Remains of the Day").
My Passage from India narrates the story of the only brother of six sisters in a traditional Muslim family, Mumbai, revelling in the crowded stalls of the Crawford market, in Id parties and weddings, playing hockey and football, getting educated in English and Urdu. A fiend for organising mega cultural events in college, young Ismail's wiliness and wheedling skills come to the fore in organising mega cultural events in college. His trip to the West and subsequent emergence as film producer (and director of features and documentaries) makes a fascinating, at times incredible, saga. His charm and chutzpah are evident when, engaged as a guide to delegates at the Indian consulate, New York, he poses as a delegate himself, and holds his own meetings at the Delegates' lounge with film production executives whom he hopes will invest in his films on Indian mythology!
In Los Angeles, he poses as an Indian producer looking for Hollywood stars ("I didn't perceive it as a lie ... I was just a little ahead of myself.") Instead of taking a film course at the university, he persuades the university into making him lecture on Indian films!
Today, Merchant Ivory is a brand name for classic narrativity, visual authenticity, canny detailing, compelling cinematography and literary density. It all began in 1961 when Merchant and James Ivory sipped coffee at Right Bank, Madison Avenue (where Ismail thought he was listening attentively to Jim, and Jim found Ismail running up and down to make calls to financiers). Soon they persuaded the shy Ruth Prawar Jhabvala to let them film her novel The Householder, and to write the script. Beginners' luck brought perfect casting (Shashi Kapoor, Leela Naidu as the young couple) with Satyajit Ray's cameraman Subroto Mitra. Ray himself was to edit the film and compose some of the music.
The rest of the story zips through films good and bad comprising the Merchant Ivory oeuvre, now part of world film history. It tells of partners stretching themselves to reach goals beyond complacent formulas, forcing multiplexes to accept their art house experiments, orchestrating a return to the classic novel in film making.
Merchant's style is anecdotal, a frolicsome oral narration, aglitter with personal encounters with stars round the world. The tale never cuts deeper than entertainment. Targetted to a Western readership, some of the details seem too elementary for the Indian eye. More over, the earnest reader finds herself peering over the edge, never allowed to plunge into the tantalising waters glimpsed below. This almost makes you overlook the extraordinariness of the voyage.
The book comes alive in gastronomic memories mouth watering Bombelli pastries, Chor Bazaar croissants, syrupy jellabies, chilli/coriander kebabs, saffron rice with cream and almond sauce ... We watch Merchant trying to barter pickles for a porter's services at a French railway station, and evolving into a gourmet cook, to beguile financiers and actors with home made exotica. The spiciest thing about the making of "The Savages" is the end-of-the-week curry party, which "people came to expect as part of their contracts" with Merchant Ivory Productions thereafter, triggered by Merchant's becoming aware of low morale in the crew on location. "I knew that no one would ever get rich working on a Merchant Ivory movie, so I had always tried to make the experience itself as pleasurable as possible ... I wanted to show the `Savages' unit how much I appreciated their hard work and commitment, so I decided to cook for them!"
When you close the book, you are no closer to understanding film making, but Merchant's generous, bonhomous warmth lingers in the mind. You realise how loyal and longstanding his associations have been whether with Ivory or Jhabvala, Satyajit Ray or Shashi Kapoor, Walter Lassally (cinematographer) Paul Bradley (executive producer) Jenny Beaven (costume) or Sunil Kirparam (accounts). How ready he is to support friends, and how many friends he has! Merchant's character emerges in his impish daring (he can borrow from Shashi Kapoor's wife, Jennifer, to pay her husband!), his acceptance of failures without whines, sulks and excuses. He can then go on to win Oscars and Baftas.
That biography, critical and comprehensive, is waiting to be written.
My Passage from India,
Ismail Merchant, Lustre Press,
Roli Books, 2002.
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