Wednesday, May 25, 2005

OBT: Ismail Merchant, classy filmmaker

From The New York Times

Ismail Merchant, Producer of Sumptuous and Literate Films, Dies at 68
By WARREN HOGE, May 26, 2005

Ismail Merchant, whose filmmaking collaboration with James Ivory created a genre of films with visually sumptuous settings that told literate tales of individuals trying to adapt to shifting societal values, died yesterday in a London hospital. He was 68.

Mr. Merchant's New York office said that the cause was undetermined, but that he had had surgery for abdominal ulcers on Tuesday.

The Indian-born Mr. Merchant's carnival-barker personality contrasted dramatically with the artist's reserve of the Oregon-reared Mr. Ivory, but as producer and director respectively they achieved a personal and professional partnership that endured 44 years and produced award-winning films including "A Room With a View," "Howards End" and "The Remains of the Day."

Impulsive, scheming and devoted to the deal in pushing his influence behind the scenes, Mr. Merchant was so unfailingly ingratiating up front that the actor Simon Callow once said the phrase "to curry favor" was invented for Mr. Merchant.

At his death, he and Mr. Ivory were in London shooting "The White Countess," from a script by Kazuo Ishiguro, starring Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, and Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave.

Among the other notable films he produced were "Shakespeare Wallah," "The Europeans," "Quartet," "Heat and Dust," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," "Jefferson in Paris" and "The Golden Bowl."

A Merchant-Ivory film set was always something of a family affair, with Mr. Merchant a more frequent visitor than producers generally are and the same crew members returning for service over decades. Once on the scene, Mr. Merchant was just as likely to be fetching tea for a company member or making one of his celebrated curries for the cast as pitching a fit about cost overruns or schedule snafus. Mr. Merchant traveled frequently between Europe and an apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, but he and Mr. Ivory centered their life in a 14-room manor house in Claverack, N.Y., built in 1805 and filled with enough elegant furniture, prints and paintings to be a setting for a Merchant-Ivory film.

Born in 1936 in what was then Bombay, Mr. Merchant moved to New York in 1958 and earned a master's in business administration at New York University.

His first film was a theatrical short, "The Creation of Woman," which was a United States entry in the 1961 Cannes International Film Festival. En route to the festival, Mr. Merchant met Mr. Ivory, and they formed a partnership to make English-language features in India for the international market. Mr. Ivory survives him, as do four sisters: Saherbanu Kabadia and Ruksana Khan, both of Mumbai; Sahida Retiwala of Bergenfield, N.J.; and Rashida Bootwala of Pune, India.

The first Merchant-Ivory project was "The Householder," based on a book by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an author who grew up in Britain and married an Indian. She then became the team's writing collaborator in an agreement signed on a napkin in a Manhattan restaurant in 1963.

"When we first began, Ruth told us she had never written a screenplay," Mr. Merchant told The Associated Press. "That was not a problem, since I had never produced a feature film and Jim had never directed one."


The rest is here . . .

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