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Overview for Ismail Merchant
Ismail Merchant

Ismail Merchant


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Also Known As: Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman Died: May 25, 2005
Born: December 25, 1936 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: India Profession: Producer ... producer director screenwriter actor advertising executive trainee messenger for United Nations restaurateur cookbook author


An epicurean who fosters a family atmosphere on his sets, often cooking sumptuous meals for cast and crew, Bombay-born producer Ismail Merchant is one half of the prolific "Merchant-Ivory" team, responsible for an oeuvre of handsome and thoughtful independent films reflecting an eye for the exotic and the beautiful and an ear for the carefully wrought line of dialogue. Along with Oregon-raised director James Ivory and the German-raised screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (a Polish Jew educated in Britain and married to an Indian), he is actually part of a triumvirate, perhaps best described by the Hindi word 'sangam' meaning "meeting of three rivers," in this case Asia, Europe and North America. Merchant was introduced to Ivory in 1961 when the producer was 24 and the director was 32. The pair shared a common collaborator, Saeed Jaffrey, who had narrated both Merchant's Oscar-nominated 1960 short "The Creation of Woman" and Ivory's short film "The Sword and the Flute" (1961). Meeting at a screening for the latter, the two eventually formed Merchant-Ivory Productions (MIP) to make English-language features in India for the international market. Their first film, "The Householder" (1963) was adapted by Jhabvala from her novel.

Merchant's financial and marketing expertise as a producer greatly contributed to the team's success and enhanced their international profile. "The Householder" became the first Indian movie to be distributed worldwide by a major American company, in this case Columbia Pictures, and they followed with "Shakespeare Wallah" (1965), about a troupe of British actors traveling through India, which earned raves from the CAHIERS DU CINEMA critic at its debut at the Berlin Film Festival and further enhanced their reputations. "The Guru" (1969) marked their first USA-financed film, and the 70s saw Merchant-Ivory move away from Indian subjects to make pictures like "The Wild Party" (1975), an uneven evocation of 20s Hollywood with a nod to the 'Fatty' Arbuckle scandal, and "Roseland" (1977), inspired by the famous NYC dance hall. "The Europeans" (1979), based on a Henry James novel, began their love affair with tasteful adaptations of literary classics, on which their reputation rests. Merchant-Ivory brings to mind James ("The Bostonians" 1984) but more particularly E.M. Forster, whose novels provided the raw material for two Oscar-nominated Best Pictures ("A Room With a View" 1986, "Howards End" 1992) and the critically-praised "Maurice" (1987).

On the heels of the enthusiasm shown the Forster adaptations, Merchant-Ivory brought forth the immaculate historic reconstruction "The Remains of the Day" (1993), based on the novel by Anglo-Asian writer Kazuo Ishiguro, reteaming "Howards End" stars Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in a high-rent battle of the sexes, but despite its numerous Oscar nominations, some critics disparaged it as a pretty but staid simplification of the novel. Their signature work has all featured the low-key Ivory at the helm, the colorful Merchant behind the scenes and resident screenwriter Jhabvala, a two-time Oscar-winner ("A Room With a View," Howards End") who had received screenplay credit on 20 Merchant Ivory projects through 1998. However, not everything they touched turned to gold as the commercial failures of the turgid "Jefferson in Paris" (1995) and the much better "Surviving Picasso" (1996) attest. Their "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries" (1998), based on the autobiographical novel by novelist James Jones' daughter Kaylie, returned to the trio's favorite theme of displacement, and represented an artistic triumph, if not a success on the magnitude of their greatest hits.

In addition to his Oscar-nominated "The Creation of Woman," Merchant directed the short "Mahatma and the Mad Boy" (1973) and the documentary "The Courtesans of Bombay" (1983), which he also scripted with Ivory and Jhabvala. He made his feature debut with "In Custody" (1994), an engaging, rueful comedy lamenting the passing of Urdu, a Northern Indian language cherished by poets and writers, that won over most reviewers. "The Proprietor" (1996), on the other hand, was a confused mess that represented a step backwards artistically for Merchant the director. Undaunted, he helmed the fine character drama "Cotton Mary" (2000), which he planned to follow with an adaptation of the V.S. Naipul book "The Mystic Masseur," all the while continuing to serve as producer for traditional Merchant-Ivory fare like a proposed feature of "The Golden Bowl" (based on a novel by henry James) and "The White Countess," a script by Ishiguro. Next for Merchant and his regular collaborators Ivory and Jhabvala was a sophisticated, unpretentious adaptation of Diane Johnson's bestselling novel "Le Divorce" (2003), a relaxed, sophisticated and contemporary tale of two American sisters in Paris: one a pregnant expatriated poetess (Naomi Watts) suddenly abandoned by her philandering French husband; the other a fresh, naive young woman (Kate Hudson) caught up in a seemingly cosmopolitan affair with a roguish, married and much older French diplomat.

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