Ismail Merchant: Bombay boy who made it big in Hollywood
One of the earliest friends I made at the famous St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai (previously known as Bombay), was the gregarious and attractive boy Ismail Merchant who later became a well-known filmmaker in the United States.
Merchant was ahead of me by two years in the college but I was acquainted with him through the good offices of my classmates Vicky and Vijay Kapoor of the Bollywood famed Kapoor family whose mentor Raj dominated the Indian film industry together with Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand for a long time. Raj was the uncle of my classmates and that’s how I knew him and his brother Shashi Kapoor. My friends were the sons of Trilok Kapoor who made a name for himself in mythological films although he was by no means as famous or as flamboyant as Raj.
Because St. Xavier’s was a compact college with one campus in those days, we used to meet practically every day in the corridors, the restaurant and the hall where Indian celebrities would address us or perform. That was where I met so many of them including Lata Magneshkar, the greatest singer, Dev Anand and famous ministers like Morarji Desai.
But the coffee shop was the place to meet the rest of students, talk, exchange notes and decide to go to watch movies at Metro Cinema, then the finest theater in the vicinity.
Ismail was a talented actor and budding director and became well known because of his natural talents. When he went to the US for higher studies, he was attracted to film direction and filmmaking together with his close friend James Ivory as well as screenwriter Ruth Jabvala, a German lady who wrote most of their stories for films.
Ismail was the son of Noor Mohammed Haji Abdul Rahman, a textile merchant who lived and worked in Mohammed Ali Road, a very crowded area of the city where Ismail was born and brought up. His father was wealthy enough to send him to New York University for the master’s degree. Merchant’s father being the leader of Muslim League was forced to move with the entire family to Pakistan after the Partition but he refused to do so. In fact, most Indian Muslims, even those who supported a separate homeland for the community, decided to remain in the independent state of India.
Ismail traveled to New York when he was twenty-two years old. During his student days he worked as a messenger for the United Nations to earn some extra bucks. But his obsession for films never wavered and by l96l he made his first film The Creation of Woman, which surprisingly for a beginner was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination. In the same year he and his friend James Ivory formed the company Merchant Ivory Productions that lasted until Ismail’s death in 2005. The company producing as many as 40 films assisted by Ruth Jhabvala as a screenwriter. In l963, the company produced the Householder, also written by Ruth, which was a good movie on the economic recession.
For television Ismail produced the Mahatma and another film the Mad Boy. I993, he directed Custody, based on a novel by Anita Desai, starring film star Shashi Kapoor, brother of the great Raj and son of famous Prithviraj Kapoor. It was filmed in Bhopal and won the National Award by the Government of India and Shashi Kapoor was adjudged as best actor. The national award boosted Shashi Kapoor’s career and he went on to star in dozens of films until he retired a few years ago because of obesity and old age.
Ismail said that his partnership with Ivory and collaboration with Ruth was a strange marriage because he was a Muslim, Ivory a Christian American and Ruth a German Jew. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster.
Apart from his films, some of which were undoubtedly excellent, Ismail was well known for his parties for which he would cook great lunches or dinners and wrote a few books including his Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond.
In 2002, he won the Padma Bhushan and received the International Center Award of Excellence in New York.
Following a surgery for abdominal ulcers, Ismail died and was flown out to Mumbai where he was buried in Marine Lines, not far from his birthplace in Mohamed Ali Road.
In an interview by Johan Anderson published in 2010, James ivory spoke about his relationship with Ismail and collaboration with Ruth. He said that the three lived in the same building in New York which also housed the flat for their production company. He said that when Ismail died it meant a raft of new challenges for the company a brand long synonymous with intelligent and sophisticated movies like Room with a View, Howards End and the Remains of the Day. Of Ismail he said that he had a million friends and a million contacts and was very much liked and that always helped .We always got through our films well and he had a way of pulling the fat out of the fire.
Fellow film producer Lord Puttnam said he was an extraordinary talent. What is gone is a major character and a unique film producer-someone who completely defined independence in the film industry.
Sanjeev Kumar who interviewed Ismail on the BBC said he was he had a great sense of humor. A great creative light in the world has gone out, said Sanjeev who starred in Merchants film the Mystic Masseur.
According to Sanjeev, “The collaboration with Merchant and Ruth went on to earn them a place in the Book of World Record for the longest partnership in independent cinema”
Their work as praised for being intelligent and literary, the BBC added, but made very little money until the mid-l988 when a Room with a View became an international success. It was awarded three Oscars, including Best Screenplay, and was nominated for five others.
Once asked about the reason for the success, Merchant told Associated Press that their films worked because they told good stories.” It should capture something wonderful with some great characters whether it is set in the past or in the future,” he said.
He did not like such films being referred to as costume dramas.
As I said earlier the man had major talents, which he displayed even while he was still in college. But I would not have expected him to shine so brilliantly all over the world including the Hollywood.
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