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Merchant of films and feasts

Ismail Merchant sold no empty dreams. He crafted elegant cinematic artifacts. In a career lasting over four decades, he proffered a goldmine of universal stories that are destined to survive the ravages of time. They will always remain a part of independent cinema folklore.

india Updated: Nov 23, 2005 23:53 IST

As a tribute to Ismail Merchant, six of his films will be screened at the festival, this year.

Ismail Merchant (December 1936 - May 2005)
Ismail Merchant sold no empty dreams. He crafted elegant cinematic artifacts. In a career lasting over four decades, he proffered a goldmine of universal stories that are destined to survive the ravages of time. They will always remain a part of independent cinema folklore.

Merchant discovered cinema on the streets of Bombay but managed to escape the city's limitations and carved a niche for himself in Hollywood and beyond. Indeed, nobody did as much as the epicurean Ismail Merchant to put India on the showbiz map of the world.

Merchant Ivory Productions, which the spunky, ebullient producer formed with the relatively low-key American director James Ivory in 1961, made films all over the world with actors and technicians drawn from virtually every major entertainment centre of the world.

For Merchant, crossing over wasn't just a concept. It was an ongoing process and involved the mind as much as it did the heart. It revolved as much around a remarkable head for figures as it did around an unfailing nose for great literature. His repeated crossovers had just as many returns - all of them in the direction of the land he left as a 22-year-old.

Two things made Merchant special. One, filmmaking and feasting were two sides of the same coin for the man who would make movies designed like sumptuous gastronomic spreads and rustle up meals during shoots with the flair and passion of a full-time chef. And two, he had a way with funding agencies. He would raise finances for his projects without losing much sweat. Merchant rarely returned empty-handed from a business confabulation.

The Merchant Ivory partnership is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for its amazing longevity - no team in the history of independent filmmaking survived as long as this one. Equally amazing and long-lasting was their creative collaboration with German-born screenplay writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who was writing the script for The City of Your Final Destination, a film that MIP announced earlier this year.

Born in Bombay on Christmas day in 1936, Merchant left for New York to study for a business degree but strayed into the domain of movie deals after acquiring an MBA. Although India remained an integral part of his being and impacted his work in fascinating ways, he chose to operate out of the West. That fitted perfectly into his global vision of a borderless film industry.

The original charter drawn up by MIP was to make English-language films in India for the international market. That is precisely what they did to begin with, starting off with The Householder in 1963. The Householder was the first Indian feature film to be distributed worldwide by a Hollywood studio, Columbia Pictures. MIP followed that up with a string of successful India-themed films, Shakespearewallah, The Guru and Bombay Talkie.

The company's reputation as a purveyor of elegant period pieces began to emerge in the late 1970s as the trio of Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala delivered a series of finely-honed literary sagas beginning with The Europeans, a lush adaptation of a Henry James novel. Heat and Dust, The Bostonians, Quartet, A Room with a View, Howards End, Remains of the Day, Jefferson in Paris, Surviving Picasso and Le Divorce followed as the team hit a rich creative vein.

These are just a handful of the 40 films that MIP has produced over a period of 44 years but they are good enough to place Ismail Merchant in the hall of fame as a producer of quality entertainment. Often accused by critics of botching up literary texts by prettifying them and draining them of their energy, Merchant continued to ply his trade regardless, often coming up films that are today deemed as landmark adaptations.

It was 30 years after MIP made its first film that Merchant made his debut as a director with In Custody, based on a novel by Anita Desai and shot in Bhopal. It was as good a film as any that the company had ever produced. The V.S. Naipaul adaptation, The Mystic Masseur, and Cotton Mary, based on a play by Alexandra Viets, were among the other films that Merchant directed.

At the time of his death, Merchant was working on The Goddess, with Tina Turner playing a personification of Shakti, the embodiment of female energy.

Blessed with ceaseless energy, he indulged his passion for food by playing chef to the many international stars he worked with, even authoring some outstanding cookery books.

The world of movies will never be the same without Ismail Merchant's benign presence and uncanny ability to achieve the impossible.

First Published: Nov 23, 2005 19:38 IST