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PRINT February 2006

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Ismail Merchant

FEW OF THE TRIBUTES written about Ismail Merchant—the producer half of the well-known Merchant-Ivory partnership, who died last year at age sixty-eight—have done more than celebrate his charismatic personality and his uncanny business acumen. While everyone is familiar with Merchant Ivory Productions’ meticulous adaptations of classic English and American novels, such as The Bostonians (1984), A Room With a View (1985), and The Remains of the Day (1993), and while early Merchant-Ivory films like Shakespeare Wallah (1965) and The Guru (1969) have rightly developed their own cult following, hardly anyone seems to be aware of the extent to which Merchant Ivory Productions’ forty-six films show evidence of Merchant’s creative input, nor of the fact that he occasionally directed as well as produced.

The depth and significance of Mechant’s creative contribution to Merchant Ivory Productions is best exemplified by the first feature film he directed: In Custody (1994), based on the 1984 novel by Anita Desai. The story revolves around a poor Hindu schoolteacher (played by Om Puri) who becomes devoted to a dying Muslim poet (Shashi Kapoor) and his transcendently beautiful Urdu poetry. The plot hinges on the relation of two languages: For though closely related to Hindi, Urdu is written in a Persian script and carries with it a different set of cultural connotations. Urdu came to be used by the noble and educated classes under the Mughal empire, and its poetry was celebrated in ghazals, devotional love poems accompanied by music—an art that today is in decline. In Custody is in Hindi, and incorporates Urdu poetry by twentieth-century poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz set to tabla and sarangi music by Zakir Hussain and Ustad Sultan Khan, giving even a non-Urdu-speaking audience a sense of the ghazal’s extraordinarily expressive power as an art form. While familiar to any educated Indian, the cultural complexities underlying the plot may be new to most Western viewers and are mirrored in the film’s equally complex, decidedly non-Western visual aesthetic, which embraces the haphazard quality of everyday life in India. Shot in Bhopal (nine years after the Union Carbide chemical disaster), Merchant’s film has a mood, texture, and composition that is disarmingly vital and colorful, blending the many sights, sounds, and traditions of India into one great untidy whole. An elegiac comedy that deals with cultural and personal decline and loss, the film ends on an uplifting note, as the lowly Hindu schoolteacher is entrusted with the dying Muslim poet’s final manuscript.

Born Ismail Noormohammed Adu Rehman, Merchant grew up in a devout Muslim home in Bombay (now Mumbai) and was fascinated with that city’s film industry. As a young man he was befriended by the film star Nimmi and thereby gained access to Bollywood’s overheated inner world. He was also interested in Urdu language and literature, particularly the realistic early novels of Munshi Premchand. After arriving in New York, Merchant discovered the films of Indian director Satyajit Ray, and his passion for the filmmaker (one shared by director James Ivory) probably derives from Ray’s own affinity for Premchand’s style of storytelling. (In fact Ray’s films Shatranj Ke Khilari [The Chess Players, 1977] and Sadgati [Deliverance, 1981] are both based on tales by the author.) When Merchant and Ivory made their first feature, The Householder (1963), based on the 1960 novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who became the screenwriter for many of their films, they hired Ray’s cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, and asked Ray himself to edit the film and compose its sound track. Merchant’s devotion to Ray’s work was such that, later in life, he arranged for the Merchant and Ivory Foundation to restore and strike new prints of nine of Ray’s films, in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, and release them through Sony Pictures Classics in North America.

Merchant’s lifelong commitment to the promotion of Indian culture resulted in his being awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2002, the Indian equivalent of a knighthood or Presidential Medal of Honor. With good reason: Twenty-one of Merchant-Ivory’s forty-six films concern India and the Indian diaspora, including documentaries such as Helen: Queen of the Nautch Girls (1973), a profile of a Bollywood dancer who appeared in more than five hundred films, and the docudrama The Courtesans of Bombay (1983), which presages such later looks at the Indian demimonde as Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Born into Brothels (2004). He was one of the only people to collect rare, disintegrating early-twentieth-century film footage of special occasions, such as wedding processions and state visits, from the former Royal Courts of Rajasthan, preserving these extraordinary images and donating them to the national film archives in Pune, India, and London. The same footage inspired Jhabvala to write the Merchant Ivory Productions drama Autobiography of a Princess (1975), starring James Mason and Madhur Jaffrey. Later in his career, independently of both Ivory and Jhabvala, Merchant directed two other films: Cotton Mary (2000), which considers the ambiguous status of half-caste Indians in post-Raj Kerala, and The Mystic Masseur (2002), based on V. S. Naipaul’s first novel about West Indians of Indian descent in 1950s Trinidad.

Fluent in both Urdu and Hindi, Merchant easily moved through all levels of Indian society. With Ivory, a documentary filmmaker from California, and Jhabvala, a writer born into a German-Jewish family who was educated in the United Kingdom and married to a Parsi architect, Merchant created a studio whose vibrant forty-year cross-cultural collaboration resulted in a substantial and widely recognized body of work. But the struggle to finance independent filmmaking of vision and daring is considerable, and the stress that Merchant experienced in his effort to do so almost certainly undermined his health. Hopefully the subtle creative influence he exerted on so many of the films of this legendary partnership will one day be recognized. In the meantime, In Custody stands as a demonstration not only of his creative talents but also of his vision that the love of art, joined with the desire to protect and preserve it, transcends all social, religious, ethnic, and cultural boundaries.

Justin Spring is a writer and biographer based in New York.