Producer Ismail Merchant (1936–2005) and director James Ivory created magnificent films that were largely the result of Merchant's financial wizardry. "Mention Merchant Ivory, and the mind begins to wallow in visions of Edwardian elegance," noted The Economist. Throughout their 40-year partnership, Merchant contributed greatly to the independent filmmakers' world.
With a string of successful film adaptations of classic novels in the 1980s and 1990s, Merchant Ivory became renowned for classy, impeccably detailed productions that captured the lives of the English and American upper classes of a bygone era. They also focused on Merchant's home country of India, a place that fascinated the American Ivory as well. The partnership of Merchant and Ivory, which lasted for more than 40 years, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest collaboration in film history. It was often Merchant's energy and his mastery of the production process that kept the partnership going.
A Multicultural Childhood
Born Ismail Noor Mohammed Abdul Rehman on December 25, 1936, in Bombay (now Mumbai) in British-occupied India, Merchant was the son of a prosperous seller of textiles. As a child he spoke both the local Gujarati language and Urdu, the Islamic variant of Hindi that his family used at home. To these languages he soon added Arabic and English, learned at St. Xavier, a Jesuit-run school in Bombay, where his parents enrolled him in search of a top-quality education. Merchant's father was a member of the Muslim League, which promoted the creation of an independent state in what would become predominantly Islamic Pakistan. Many of Merchant's own friends were Hindus, however, and even his father declined to move to Pakistan later on. The "butchery and riots" (as he was quoted as saying in England's Daily Telegraph) that followed the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 occurred when Merchant was 11 and left a lasting impact on him.
Merchant first got a taste of his own persuasive powers when he addressed a Muslim political rally, while still a student, but politics were not his main interest. Fascinated by movies, he hoped to become an actor, and he got an initial break when he met and was befriended by the single-named Indian actress Nimmi. She steered Merchant toward several modeling jobs, and for his entire life he would be known as a sharp, fashionable dresser. His film career began with roles as extras in several Indian productions.
His real genius from the start, though, lay in the area of production work. He began organizing variety shows at St. Xavier, sometimes staging them in the school's main quadrangle as fundraisers for the institution. Merchant's family exhorted him to focus on his studies in political science and English literature, but he began to spend more and more time on theatrical productions. Soon he was in business for himself, financing theatrical shows by selling advertising space in the printed program. "I'd get two beautiful girls, and we would go round in a big car to various companies," he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph. "Out of hundreds of doors you knocked on, maybe 20 would buy space."
These shows put money into Merchant's own pocket as well as St. Xavier's coffers, and by the time he graduated in 1958 he had saved enough money to move to New York and enroll in a master of business administration program at New York University in the United States. He soaked up film after film in the rich cinema atmosphere of New York, learning for the first time about the works of the great Bengali Indian director Satyajit Ray. To make ends meet, he worked as a messenger at the United Nations building. Already looking toward his film career, he buttonholed Indian dignitaries, who were visiting the United States, and asked them to finance his new production company. Again, he was successful in spite of his youth and his unknown status. After a stint as an account executive at an advertising agency he moved to Hollywood, confidently sending out a press release in advance of his arrival stating that a top Indian producer was coming to town. He made a short film called The Creation of Woman, booked it into theaters at his own expense in advance of the Academy Award deadline, and scored a nomination in the lightly contested category. He also entered the short at the Cannes Film Festival in 1961.
Co-Founded Merchant Ivory Productions
At Cannes, Merchant met a young American director, James Ivory, who was screening a documentary about India, The Sword and the Flute. He was impressed by Ivory's knowledge of India, and the conversation that they struck up was to be the beginning of a lifelong partnership. By 1962 they had set up a production company, Merchant Ivory Productions. The partnership was personal in addition to professional; the Daily Telegraph quoted him as saying that "Our lives are knitted together, and our films are knitted together." In later years the two men shared a vacation home in upstate New York and lived in different apartments in the same building in New York City.
Living in yet another apartment in that building was novelist and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a woman of German background who had married an Indian man. In 1963 she had furnished the screenplay for the first Merchant Ivory release, The Householder, and from then on she was a key member of their creative team. Some of her screenplays were adapted from novels of her own. Part of Merchant Ivory's success was due to their having found an accomplished writer who could realize their aim of creating intelligent films set in India for Western audiences. Early Merchant Ivory films such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965), the story of an English theatrical troupe that slowly loses its audience as independence comes to India, gained an international viewership.
The successful launch of Merchant Ivory was not due exclusively to creative factors, however. They were able to set the company up on a firm financial footing. Merchant identified a source of unused funds—American film company profits that had been nationalized by India's left-leaning government of the 1960s and were essentially lying unused. It was the first, but by no means the last, example of creative funding to ferment in the brain of Merchant, leading Forbes writer Richard C. Morais to speculate that "maybe Merchant Ivory itself deserves to be nominated as the best-run film company in the word."
Merchant's film finance exploits were legendary. His formula rested on equal parts cost control and tireless hounding of potential investors. As Merchant and Ivory established their reputations, top actors willingly took pay cuts in order to participate in their high-quality productions. Large catering bills were not part of the expense picture for Merchant, who would often entertain a film's cast and crew with curry parties and eventually published several Indian cookbooks of his own. He and Ivory sometimes wrangled as Merchant held his partner to a strict production schedule, appearing on the set to recite an insistent refrain of "Shoot, Jim, Shoot." As for investors, he told Morais that "you have to bully them." An unsuccessful example came when he banged on the door of cosmetics executive Estee Lauder but was not admitted.
Influenced by Masterpiece Theater
The Merchant Ivory films from the first part of the duo's career continued to be set in India, and they continued to focus on India with major films such as Autobiography of a Princess (1975) and Heat and Dust (1983). Their work remained only moderately successful financially, however, until they hit on the idea of dramatizing famous English and American novels. They began thinking along these lines after noting the success of the television series Masterpiece Theater. Their first film of this type was a 1979 film of Henry James's novel The Europeans, starring Lee Remick as a young woman climbing her way through Boston's layers of high society. That was also their first film made in the U.S., and its success was once again a team effort; Ivory had a keen eye for the rituals and details of aristocratic life; Jhabvala proved an extremely effective translator of complex novels to the big screen; and Merchant found inexpensive alternatives to building large numbers of period sets, such as leaning on friends who owned country estates and persuading them to allow filming there. The result was a set of films with modest budgets (typically two or three million dollars) that looked like big-budget costume extravaganzas.
Merchant and Ivory returned with another Henry James adaptation, The Bostonians, in 1984, and when it grossed $8 million on costs of $2.8 million Merchant's financial profile grew higher. In advance of the 1986 Merchant Ivory film A Room with a View, an adaptation of a novel by E.M. Forster, Merchant forecast gross receipts of $50 million, which would give his investors a 200 percent return on their money. As it turned out, the film grossed $60 million and became an international success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three.
Several more major successes in the same vein followed, including Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990), another Forster adaptation, Howard's End, in 1992, and The Remains of the Day, from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro about a taciturn but inwardly passionate butler (played by Anthony Hopkins). Their success bred a certain degree of backlash as some detractors (according to Tom Vallance of the Independent) characterized their output as "the Laura Ashley school of film-making." Merchant directed several films of his own in the 1990s, returning to Indian subjects. His 1993 film In Custody was made in the Urdu language, and Cotton Mary (1999) told the story of a domestic worker of Indian background in the 1950s. His 2001 film The Mystic Masseur was adapted from a book by Indo-Trinidadian-British novelist V.S. Naipaul. He also produced films by directors other than Ivory.
Merchant received the Padma Bhusan, India's equivalent of knighthood, in 2002, and became an honorary fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts the following year. He and Ivory remained active as a partnership, releasing The Golden Bowl in 2000, and Le divorce, starring Glenn Close, in 2003. In 2005 they had two projects in process: The Goddess, a musical about Shakti, a figure in the Hindu pantheon, and The White Countess, which was set in China. After a grueling filming schedule there, he returned to England in poor health and died on May 25, 2005, after complications from ulcer surgery. "He had endless passion," Howard's End star Helena Bonham Carter told Missy Schwartz of Entertainment Weekly, "and made films because he believed in beauty."
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, 4th ed., St. James, 2000.
Economist (US), February 29, 1992.
Daily Mail (London, England), June 3, 2005.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 26, 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, June 10, 2005.
Forbes, March 23, 1987.
Guardian (London, England), June 3, 2005.
Independent (London, England), May 27, 2005.
Interview, May 2002.
New Statesman, August 15, 1997.
"Merchant, Ismail." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/merchant-ismail
"Merchant, Ismail." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/merchant-ismail
Producer and Director. Nationality: Indian. Born: Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman in Bombay, 25 December 1936. Education: Attended St. Xavier's College, Bombay, arts degree; New York University, M.A. in business administration. Career: Worked at United Nations and in advertising agency; 1960—produced short film, The Creation of Woman, nominated for Academy Award; 1961—met director James Ivory and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, formed Merchant-Ivory Productions; 1963—produced first MIP film, The Householder; 1972—produced first U.S. film, Savages; 1974—made directorial debut with short, Mahatma and the Mad Boy; 1983—first feature-length film as director, The Courtesans of Bombay.
Films as Producer
(all directed by James Ivory unless otherwise noted)
The Creation of Woman (Schwep) (short)
Gharbar (The Householder)
Shakespeare Wallah (+ ro as theater manager)
The Guru (+ ro as compere)
Bombay Talkie (+ ro as film producer)
Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilisation (doc)
Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (Korner) (doc short)
Mahatma and the Mad Boy (+ d) (doc short); The Wild Party
Autobiography of a Princess
Sweet Sounds (Robbins) (doc short)
Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (+ ro as extra); The Europeans
Jane Austen in Manhattan
Heat and Dust (+ ro as peasant); The Courtesans of Bombay (doc) (+ d, co-sc)
A Room with a View
My Little Girl (Kaiserman)
The Deceivers (Meyer); The Perfect Murder (Hai)
Slaves of New York (+ ro as extra)
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
The Ballad of the Sad Café (Callow); Second Daughter (Kaiserman)
The Remains of the Day; In Custody (+ d)
Street Musicians of Bombay (Robbins)
Jefferson in Paris (+ ro as Tipoo Sultan's Ambassador); The Feast of July (Menaul); Lumière et compagnie (Moon)
Surviving Picasso; Propritaire (The Proprietor) (+ dir)
Side Streets (Gerber) (exec)
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries
Cotton Mary (+ dir)
The Golden Mary (La Coupe d'Or)
By MERCHANT: books—
Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine (cookbook), New York, 1986.
Hullaballoo in Old Jaypore: The Making of The Deceivers, London, 1988.
By MERCHANT: articles—
Interview with Jaz Mohan, Basu Chatterji, and Arun Kaul, in Close-Up (Bombay), October/December 1968.
Interview with Amena Meer, in Interview (New York), April 1994.
"The Maker of Dreams," interview with Shahrukh Husain, in Index on Censorship (London), 1995.
On MERCHANT: books—
Pym, John, Wandering Company: Twenty-one Years of Merchant Ivory Films, London/New York, 1983.
Long, Robert Emmet, The Films of Merchant Ivory, New York, 1991.
On MERCHANT: articles—
Gillett, John, "Merchant-Ivory," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1973.
Gillett, John, "A Princess in London," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1974.
Arora, Nina, "The Dream Merchant from New York," in Film World (Bombay), February 1976.
Watts, Janet, "Three's Company," in Observer (London), 17 June 1979.
Bergson, Phillip, "The Producer," in What's On in London, 27 January 1983.
Malcolm, Derek, "The Wizard behind the Ivory Trade," in The Guardian (London), 3 February 1983.
Newman, Charles, "Ismail Merchant: Snowballs to Eskimos," in AIP & Co (London), July 1984.
Fistenberg, P., "A Class Act Turns Twenty-Five," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1987.
Callow, Simon, "Pair Excellence," in Evening Standard (London), 12 March 1992.
Dalrymple, William, "Star of India," in Sunday Times Magazine (London), 5 June 1994.
Naughton, John, "Profile," in Empire (London), July 1994.
Giovannini, Joseph, and Marina Faust, "Ismail Merchant," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1996.
"Collective Works of the Merchant Ivory Troika," in Variety (New York), September 30-November 3 1996.
Kemp, P., "In a Family Way," in Variety (New York), October 28-November 3 1996.
Roberts, J., "A Duo With a View," in Variety (New York), October 28-November 3 1996.
* * *
The 35-year producer-director partnership of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is now officially enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest collaboration in the history of cinema. To their two names should be joined that of the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, scriptwriter on most of their films. The reason for the partnership's endurance, it is generally agreed, lies in an exceptionally happy balance of similarities and contrasts between its members. All three, despite their very different backgrounds, share cultured, cosmopolitan sensibilities; but while Ivory and Jhabvala are quiet and self-effacing, with nothing of the huckster about them, Merchant is outgoing, energetic, charming, and irresistibly persuasive.
It was not until their 15th feature together, A Room with a View, that Merchant-Ivory went securely into profit, but that never deterred Merchant in his tireless quest for finance. "If you have enthusiasm, and a sincere belief in what you are doing," he declares, "money is no problem." A colleague of his (quoted by Robert Emmet Long) describes him as "like an elephant outside the financier's door. You can see him through the glass, you cannot shift him, he won't go away, he is very patient, and there is always the chance that he will come crashing in."
To be an independent producer, Merchant has observed, "you have to be a master of survival." If Merchant-Ivory has not only survived, but remained staunchly independent, it is due largely to Merchant's negotiating acumen and business training. Few producers are as well qualified to see through the industry's notoriously baroque accounting practices. "Strange charges are applied to your film's earnings," he notes. "Executives buy suits from Armani and charge them to your quarterly report. You have to have an eagle's-eye watch on them all the time." He keeps an equally close eye on the company's own accounts: Merchant-Ivory productions are famous for their tight budgeting and for looking a lot more expensive than they are. Major stars are cajoled into working for well below their normal asking rate, and valuable props are borrowed rather than bought—often for free.
Thanks to these shrewd financial tactics, Merchant-Ivory has maintained an independence of operation rare for a company of such modest size. Remarkably few projects have had to be aborted for want of finance, and almost all—especially since the worldwide success of A Room with a View—have enjoyed wide international release through major distribution networks. Yet the company has kept Hollywood safely at arm's-length, retaining control over subject, script, casting, and final cut. Pressures to go down-market, to embark on more crowd-pleasing ventures, have been resisted. All these achievements can be credited almost entirely to Merchant.
Still, those who criticize Merchant-Ivory for making (in the director Alan Parker's dismissive phrase) "Laura Ashley films" might well retort that an excursion or two down-market might not be a bad thing. Certainly the company has increasingly tended to concentrate on literary-based "heritage cinema," partly no doubt because audience response to their occasional forays into more robust territory—Savages, The Wild Party, Slaves of New York—has been less than enthusiastic. But while even Merchant-Ivory's strongest admirers have detected something slightly airless about such latter-day offerings as Jefferson in Paris, there is no evidence that this tendency has stemmed from specifically financial pressure being brought to bear by Merchant.
It may be a sign of restlessness that in recent years Merchant has begun to branch out: into directing on his own account, and into producing films directed by people other than Ivory. As yet, he has not ranged too far afield. The other directors have mainly been members of the Merchant-Ivory team such as Connie Kaiserman, associate producer on many of their productions, and regular actors in their films such as Simon Callow. Merchant's own directorial efforts, clearly much influenced by Ivory, have aroused little excitement. The partnership with Ivory and Jhabvala seems likely to remain his chief commitment; understandably so, providing as it does the ideal vehicle to fulfill his lifelong passion "to make movies, and movies of substance and quality." At the end of the '90s, his most noteworthy production, once again teamed with Ivory and Jhabvala, has been A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. This finely detailed character study of an unusual multicultural family consisting of a writer, his glamorous wife, and their two children, one of whom is adopted, depends on carefully modulated performances and excellent dialogue. Abjuring plot, in the tradition of Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala classics such as Heat and Dust, the film offers a string of finely observed moments, the undramatic crises and recognitions that reveal the inner workings of the those who live together as intimate strangers. The critical, if not box office success of the film demonstrates that Merchant continues to offer meaningful high-culture alternatives to the limited formulas, conventions, and erotic appeals of Hollywood cinema.
—Philip Kemp, updated by R. Barton Palmer
"Merchant, Ismail." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 24, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/merchant-ismail
"Merchant, Ismail." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved October 24, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/merchant-ismail