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The ultimate producer

May 26, 2005 13:03 IST

Ismail Merchant died yesterday in London. I learnt about his death in the early afternoon. For a while in between, phone calls, friends and journalists speculated that he was simply ill. And then the actual news was confirmed: a friend said she was on the phone with the filmmaker's office, and it was true that Merchant was no more.

I was stunned. A large part of this life that I led in New York was gone. New York City was bustling with noise, and all I could feel was a strange silence within me.

In the evening, I attended a press screening of Merchant Ivory Productions' latest film, Heights. I had planned to attend the screening for more than a week. So this was indeed a bizarre coincidence.

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Before the film started, I had a strong desire to walk up and address the journalists who were seated in the plush screening room in the Sony Pictures building. I wanted to remind them that this film, and dozens of other Merchant Ivory Productions would not have been possible, had it not been for the tenacity and the drive of Ismail Merchant.

It would have been so good for us to observe a couple of minutes of silence, but I was too shy to speak up. In any case, I had been privately mourning Merchant's death for the entire afternoon.

When the film ended, one of the closing credits read 'Produced by Ismail Merchant.' And I spoke to the man: 'Congratulations on a great job, Ismail. Congratulations on a great life you lived.'

Merchant was a larger than life figure, who really enjoyed connecting with people, especially those who would help him in his profession -- financiers, filmmakers, actors and certainly journalists. Despite all the Oscar nominations, critical and box office successes and the celebrities he hung out with, Merchant almost never said no to a journalist. A journalist could just call his office, and if the filmmaker was in, he would take the phone and speak freely. It was that simple.

He and his partner James Ivory were 'independent' filmmakers a few decades before that tag became fashionable. And along with Madhur Jaffrey, Merchant was one of the first Indians in the Diaspora to make a mark in field of arts in the US -- especially in New York. With the early Merchant Ivory films -- The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and Heat And Dust (1982), the team made people in the West recognise India, far predating the trendiness of Bollywood and Indian cinema in mainstream newspapers.

I did not know Ismail Merchant very well. He was not a personal friend. But in the past 20 years, I had seen him several times, at functions, film events, giving talks and, one priceless evening at Barnard College when he had a conversation with Ivory about their careers (the two bickered and disagreed on nearly every detail and yet they appeared to be on friendly terms). In the recent years, Merchant was a regular at events that celebrated the cinema of the Indian Diaspora. And in the years that I have been a journalist, I interviewed Merchant several times, for rediff.com, its newspaper India Abroad, The Boston Globe and publications in India.

My favourite interview was in September 2001, when I sat with Merchant and Om Puri outside a movie theater in Telluride. Merchant had traveled to the small ski town in southwest Colorado to show his film The Mystic Masseur at the Telluride Film Festival. It was a quiet afternoon in between film screenings. There were no publicists and other journalists demanding Merchant's time and attention. The filmmaker spoke to me at length about the early days as a filmmaker and his struggles.

He said he saw a lot of parallels between the life of Ganesh Ramsumair (V S Naipaul's protagonist in The Mystic Masseur, played by Aasif Mandvi) and his own. Both were self-made men who started with "humble beginnings on to a lot of determination and coming to a certain point of success in life."

He was the ultimate producer who did not take no for an answer. One of his favorite stories was how he managed to secure the rights for The Mystic Masseur. Naipaul had no interest in his book being made into a film. And so Merchant wrote a personal letter to the reclusive author requesting a private meeting.

"He wrote back to me saying, 'Please don't come to see me.' I know your persuasive powers are legendary. So here is the novel. I would like you to negotiate with my agent in London,'" Merchant recounted with a gleeful look in his eyes.

And, being a fabulous raconteur, Merchant talked about the number of times he cooked for actors to convince them to act in his production company's films. He cooked a red snapper meal at a friend's apartment in London, trying to persuade Vanessa Redgrave to play the role of Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians (1984).

"She loved the food, but said no to the role," Merchant said. "Oh, it was such a disappointment. But little had I known, it was not a waste." Redgrave eventually agreed to act in The Bostonians when Glenn Close dropped out because of a scheduling conflict.

And during the shoot of Surviving Picasso (1996), Merchant once again used his culinary skills, cooking Anthony Hopkins' daily lunch dosage of lemon lentils.

Despite all his charms, Merchant was a short-tempered man who would not tolerate incompetence. In the recently published book James Ivory In Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes Its Movies, Ivory said the following to writer Robert Emmet Long: 'Well, Ismail has far less patience than I have on the set; as in everything in life, he hates delays.'

He had strong opinions and was never shy to express them. In 1998 he wrote a piece on Bollywood films for The New York Times in which he expressed his disdain for the new Indian commercial films.

'Commercial Indian films have always borrowed ideas and styles from the West, but where filmmakers once sought out the finest examples to emulate, they now settle for the trashiest elements,' Merchant wrote. 'Last year's big box office hit Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is a striking example of this lamentable trend to ape the worst of Western cinema. It is a mindless piece of nonsense about young British Asians and the anachronism of arranged marriages.'

'Even by Bollywood standards, this has a risibly unbelievable plot -- coincidence piled on coincidence -- which would matter less if the movie were not so totally lacking in charm or the actors quite so manic in their desperate attempt to appear cool,' he added.

In the early 1990s Merchant was involved in securing the US rights to nine Satyajit Ray films. Eventually, he convinced Sony Pictures Classics to release the remastered prints of the films in arthouse theatres across the US. But, in doing so, Merchant made a few enemies -- people who swore never to work with him again. "Mr Merchant is a merchant," film preservation expert David Shepard told me last year. "That is all I will say."

In the mid-1990s, around the time Ray's films were released in the US, I interviewed Merchant for an article that appeared in The Hindustan Times. During our conversation, I told Merchant about a CD I had bought in India -- a collection of songs and music from Ray's films. Merchant had never heard of this CD, and asked whether he could borrow it from me.

I felt honoured that Ismail Merchant wanted to borrow a CD of mine. And in return, he had offered me a complimentary copy of a Ray CD that Merchant Ivory Productions were about to release.

I trusted Merchant and what a big mistake that was. It was several months, countless telephone calls and messages left at his office, before my CD was returned. And I never received the complimentary CD that he had promised. But I got over my annoyance.

A few months ago, I was in a bus on Madison Avenue and I saw Merchant walking on the sidewalk. He looked good. He seemed to have recovered from his fall in China that had kept him wheelchair-bound for sometime. Then in early April, Merchant introduced Ray's Seemabadha (1971) at the Masters of Indian Cinema festival in New York City. I missed this presentation, and now I really regret that.

Aseem Chhabra in New York