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Ismail's story

May 26, 2005 09:58 IST

Ismail MerchantIsmail Mechant, who died in London on Wednesday, told Aseem Chhabra why he decided to write his memoirs in a feature that originally appeared in India Abroad, a publication, October 26, 2002.

Towards the beginning of Ismail Merchant's new and chatty autobiographical book is a remarkable photograph. A very old Nimmi -- Bollywood actress of yesteryears -- is standing face to face with an equally old Jeanne Moreau -- the star of French New Wave cinema. The two women are smiling at each other. Moreau has her hand on Nimmi's shoulder. And in between the two stands a proud and radiant Merchant.

The picture works as two bookends to Merchant's life, although the legendary independent film producer and director, who turns 66 this Christmas, has enough steam and passion to last many more decades.

Merchant's love for cinema, as he describes it in the book, began with his introduction to Nimmi, a family friend. At 13, Merchant attended the premiere of Raj Kapoor's Barsaat, as Nimmi's guest. It was the defining moment of his life. In 1996 Merchant cast Moreau in his film The Proprietor, a project he worked on after he met the actress at a party hosted by the Indian ambassador to France.

Merchant's book, published by Viking Studio, is a slim volume -- all of 150 pages for a man who has been involved in the film business for 40 years. The Householder -- Merchant's first production and collaboration with his long time partner, director James Ivory -- was released in 1963. The film was based on a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who since then has become the third leg of a solid stool -- Merchant Ivory Productions -- an independent shop of critically acclaimed and award-winning movies.

Merchant is known in the film world for his persuasive powers and his ability to mold difficult situations in his favour. With this book Merchant's reputation will also grow as a master raconteur.

"I told my publishers I was thinking of writing about my childhood and coming to this country," Merchant recently said in an interview from his corner office in midtown Manhattan. Perhaps the inspiration also came from his last film project, The Mystic Masseur (2002), based on Nobel laureate V S Naipaul's semi-autobiographical novel.

Merchant added that he saw a parallel between his life and that of Naipaul's protagonist Ganesh Ramsumair -- from 'humble beginnings on to a lot of determination and coming to a certain point of success in life.'

Ismail MerchantOne theme that emerges out of the book is about Merchant's efforts to hustle — often borrow from colleagues -- to get his movies made. Sometimes the arrangements were convoluted and bizarre. In 1970 while producing Bombay Talkie, Merchant was in a predicament. His close friend Shashi Kapoor had deferred his salary from The Householder. But Kapoor had hoped the salary issue from The Householder would be resolved before Bombay Talkie was made. But Merchant was broke -- having plowed all his funds into Bombay Talkie. And so he borrowed money from Kapoor's wife Jennifer to pay off her husband. Later he returned the money to Jennifer Kapoor.

Then there was the shoot of Heat And Dust in the early 1980s, when Merchant ran out of money. For weeks the cast and crew worked on the film in Hyderabad without pay.

When the team moved to Kashmir, there was no money to pay the hotel bills. When the hotel impounded the film's cameras and equipment, Merchant tried frantically to raise money in New York, London, Hong Kong and Mumbai. But he also turned to Kapoor, the star of the film, requesting him to act as a guarantor for the hotel bills.

The success of films such as A Room With A View(1986), Howards End (1992) and Mr & Mrs Bridge(1990), brought a lucrative three-picture deal with Disney for Merchant Ivory Productions. But the struggle for money has continued.

"It is always tough," Merchant said about raising money. "Because you are doing things independently and there is always the question of fighting and battling with people with money. Because you have a certain vision and you don't want to compromise it."

As the book reveals, since his arrival in the US in 1958 as a student at New York University, Merchant has made several connections -- a skill that has been extremely beneficial in his career. One of the earliest connections Merchant made was with an Indian couple -- actors Saeed Jaffrey and his now separated wife Madhur. In the early 1960s Saeed worked at the Government of India Tourism Office and Madhur was a tour guide at the United Nations. It was the Jaffreys who introduced Merchant to Ivory.

Ismail MerchantOver the years, Madhur has acted in five Merchant Ivory films -- from Shakespeare Wallah (1965) to Cotton Mary (1999). At the time of the release of Cotton Mary, Madhur said the following about her relationship with the team: 'We have all grown up together and our relationship, at least mine with them has been very sibling-like, with battles and making up. You know what it is like. You have disagreements and you come back and you agree on doing something else. So it is a very loving relationship.'

One such disagreement happened around the time of the making of Cotton Mary. Madhur had brought the script of the film to Merchant. She wanted to direct the film. But Merchant realised it would be hard to raise funds for Cotton Mary with Madhur handling the director's position and the lead role in the film. And so Madhur was given the title of co-director.

"It was a difficult moment," Merchant said about his dispute with Madhur. "She thought I was going to give her the opportunity and I did want to. But under the circumstances it was difficult. Anyway our friendship survived."

About his ability to stay connected with people, Merchant said: "I think it is very important for people to know that the connections you make should never be forgotten.  They are there, alive and kicking."

Merchant dedicates the book to James Ivory 'without whom the journey would not have been possible.' And about their first meeting at the Right Bank a coffee shop on Madison Avenue, located in Manhattan's Upper East Side, he writes that a plaque will soon be erected at the site to mark the location where the Merchant Ivory partnership began.

Ismail Merchant on

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Ismail Merchant bites the bullet
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