TRIBUTE: ISMAIL MERCHANT
Full of curiosity about people, books, art, wining, dining and films, Ismail Merchant will be remembered for more than just his films.
Aggressive and winsome by turns, he had the ability to make friends with a range of people from every walk of life, star and clapper boy.
PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
AN AFFABLE CELEBRITY: His productions bore a distinctive stamp.
"SO you were that crazy Indian!" exclaimed Paul Newman, bang in the middle of dinner, when he realised that years ago, his host had knocked on his dressing room door after a show in a Broadway theatre, suggesting breezily, "Maybe we can work together someday?" At that time the speaker had nothing but vague dreams of filmmaking. But he must have had oodles of charm, for he got a ride home on the matinee idol's motorbike. Twenty years later he was producing "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
Think of Ismail Merchant (1936-2005) and the word that pops up is chutzpah. Even as a young man wandering in the Hollywood studios, with neither money nor contacts, never for a minute did he think that his ambition of making films with an international cast for global audiences was a brash fantasy. "I was just a little ahead of myself," he chuckled.
When he died at 68, Merchant had realised his dreams. His films had won critical acclaim and Oscar nominations. His obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic lavished fulsome praise on the man who had produced over 40 features with frontline actors from different continents, establishing a record for the longest producer-director partnership with life partner James Ivory. He had directed his own films too, from the Academy-nominated, Cannes entry short "The Creation of Woman" (1960) to "In Custody" (1994), "Cotton Mary" (1999) and "Mystic Masseur" (2002). Right from the debut feature "The Householder" (1963, re-edited by an approving Satyajit Ray), his productions bore a distinct stamp and dramatic signature. Arresting, sumptuous sets, exquisite detailing in every frame, in depth characterisation, fine performances by star actors from Vanessa Redgrave and Anthony Hopkins to Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes, strong old fashioned narrative, and well-crafted dialogues were the obvious hallmarks. Stringent voices said that the Merchant-Ivory shows were too literary, theatrical, they were costume dramas with picture-postcard visuals. There were disasters like "Jefferson in Paris". The subtle coils of Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day" were unravelled to a simple pathos. But "Howard's End" was a connoisseur's treat, ricocheting with rare echoes.
However, hit or miss, no Merchant Ivory production underestimates the intelligence of the viewer. The narrative is old-fashioned, no avant garde style either, but the choice of literary texts, and the care in retaining their core, have shaped works demanding attention, and good taste.
Watching Merchant, Ivory and their long-term screenwriter Ruth Prawar Jhabvala honoured at a televised Golden Globe Awards function, was to sense their intense bonding. You saw Merchant the showman, doing his best to get his shy Ruth and reticent James into the limelight. On another occasion this writer observed Merchant escorting Anita Desai to functions at the Locarno film Festival, with the care lavished on a precious gem. Mornings saw Anita and Ismail at the lakeside restaurant, their easy camaraderie beaming over toast and tea. No wonder every Merchant produced or directed film, whether based on V.S.Naipaul or Henry James, is marked by a deep respect for the writer, a rare quality in filmdom. His autobiography recalls finding lifelong friends in Sayeed and Madhur Jaffrey, but also that they lived in the New York apartment where once O. Henry had lived.
The effervescence of discovery and wonder in the `Indian' themes like "The Householder", "Shakespearewallah" and "The Guru" were replaced by a more pondering deliberation in adapting western classics. Merchant was not to recapture that first rapture in his later forays into home ground with "In Custody". Whatever their shortcomings, those early films had a riveting freshness; they refused to opt for easy emotions, linear situations or perspectives.
Almost everyone he worked with pays admiring or grudging tribute to Merchant's financial (finagling?) skills. He could grab, steal, conjure up sets and equipment. His rabbits-out-of-hat tricks had rescued many projects from utter catastrophe, including the impounding of all film equipment on location shooting by the hotel demanding payment. The favourite story is, of course, of Merchant borrowing money from Jennifer Kapoor to pay her husband, Shashi Kapoor. The charm did not always work. Once he was forced to pay a French porter in hard cash, when the stupid fellow refused to barter his services for a jar of his mother's home made achaar.
Those who worked for Merchant never forgot the feasting. Many rivals were convinced that his gourmet cooking got him the best deals, all made at the dinner table. "The phrase `to curry favour' must have been invented for Ismail Merchant!" quipped British actor Simon Callow. His weekend curry parties became so famous that "people came to expect it as a condition of their contracts," laughed Merchant, amused at setting a record of sorts by being the only producer who actually rolled up his sleeves to cook for his cast-n-crew. Characteristically, he added, "No one ever got rich in working on a Merchant-Ivory movie, so I tried to make the experience itself as pleasurable as possible."
WINNING CRITICAL ACCLAIM: A still from "Cotton Mary".
In Madhur Jaffrey's best selling cookbook, Ismail Merchant's claim to fame is his recipe for a fabulous sheer khorma. He was to open a restaurant in New York, and author cookbooks.
Merchant was as passionate about cooking as filming. His description of the tribulations of getting Indira Gandhi to intervene for the release of his activist actor Utpal Dutt from prison, slides smoothly into the delights of Benarsi cuisine, its "gari ka chewra, a heavenly confection of coconut flakes and powdered sugar" or "ghugni, black chickpeas cooked with mustard and cumin seeds". Kashmir offers not only a great shooting locations, it is also where he gets addicted to saffron rice cooked on hot coals, and mincemeat with cream and almond sauce.
Aggressive and winsome by turns, he had the ability to make friends with a range of people from every walk of life, star and clapper boy. Celebrityhood did not rob him of affability. Disembarking in Bombay airport when the city was on strike, a natty Merchant, refreshed after a first class snooze, stopped to find out if the co-traveller he had met the day before needed help with transport on the deserted roads. His boyish hero worship for Satyajit Ray was an endearing trait. Merchant was also to launch the restoration of Ray's masterpieces, and continue unfazed despite calumnies following the destruction of the negatives in a lab fire.
No retirement for Ismail Merchant death found him in the middle of making a new film in London, eyes twinkling, mouth ready to chuckle, mind busy with schemes, heart full of curiosity about men and women, books and paintings, wining and dining...
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