A successful passage
An engrossing account of a boy who grew up believing in his dreams, Merchant's autobiography still leaves much unsaid.
My Passage from India
Price: Not stated
What can you expect from the harbinger of joy and pleasure (read, the provider of finance and food) to film crews, when he decides to pen down his memoirs? Lots, actually. You expect mushiness, you expect nostalgia and you expect inside information on the makings of one of the most successful filmmaking teams in the world. You also, in addition, expect candour and some amount of truth. After all, Ismail Merchant is nothing if not the seller of dreams based on reality. Memoirs cannot be complete with an honest look at any or all of the above.
And on these last counts, his My Passage from India disappoints. No doubt, it is an engrossing account of a boy who grew up believing in his dreams – big ones – and realised them too. His admiration as an adolescent for the movies translated into a never-say-die or never-hear-a-no attitude over the years, and so consistent was his need to be successful as a film person that since direction couldn't be his forte, production became his ambit.
And while it is funny to know that he found his way "onto sound stages where I established more and more contacts, introducing myself as an Indian producer looking to cast Hollywood stars in films I was planning in India." While "this was not exactly the truth, … (he didn't) perceive it as a lie (either)." Suddenly, it reveals to you another side of the man who will do anything to achieve his goals. Who uses his gift of gab to sweet-talk people into parting with their money. And the best part about it, Merchant takes you along happily on the route to his stardom.
A legendary team
That said, there is little denying that the book makes for unstoppable reading. Merchant exploits his skills as a charmer to take you through the journey of Merchant-Ivory productions. Of the manner in which he met James Ivory (his better half, professionally), Shashi Kapoor and Ruth Jhabwala – the three other pillars of strength in the production house whose contribution can never be negated. He recounts with details his life's anecdotes, his meetings with international film legends such as Vivien Leigh, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave and Emma Thompson to name a select few, his acquiring of culinary skills in order to keep his film crews happy and how he drove like a maniac on the tarmac to help James and Ruth keep an appointment with an airplane!
Yes, Ismail Merchant could sell ice to an Eskimo and even get him to pay the interest on it, without letting the poor man know, but that's only part of the story.
Reading between the lines, you find the finer details of a man driven towards success. Merchant's ambition, hot temper and ruthlessness where business acumen is concerned is there for anyone to see. And while the successes are spoken of with much love and affection, failures are done away in single paragraphs as in the case of Guru. Time for mulling over failures and correcting doesn't fall under Merchant's purview. That's philosopher speak not Merchantspeak.
Merchant and his people
And then there are the genuinely funny parts. Like the time when Merchant got taken for a royal ride on account of Zohra Segal, one of the many Merchant-Ivory regulars. Let Merchant describe his own, as he talks about The MysticMasseur, based on V.S. Naipaul's novel: "Among the many Merchant-Ivory regulars reunited on this film was the actress Zohra Segal, a veteran of almost every Anglo-Indian film who is as busy at the age of eighty-eight as she has always been. In deference to her age and apparent frailty, I assigned a member of the crew to act as her guardian, escorting her to and from the set, shielding her from the sun with an umbrella, bringing her cool drinks and generally making the laborious process of filming more comfortable for her. Never has my concern been more misplaced. "In my last film, I played a karate-fighting biker in full leather gear," I overheard her whispering gleefully to someone. "Don't tell Ismail!"
Well, frankly speaking, there are a lot of things that Ismail doesn't tell either and you can feel cheated at the end of the book. Meanwhile, there is no denying that Merchant-Ivory has given to the world of cinema some of its most memorable moments and one hopes (like Ismail) that the 'Merchant-Ivory adventure continues for another forty years'.