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A passion for cinema

It rained marigolds and Ismail Merchant fell in love with cinema. ANIL DHARKER talks about this natural showman and the Merchant-Ivory partnership, celebrated by the Guinness Book.

James Ivory (standing) with Ismail Merchant.

EVERYBODY WHO knows Ismail Merchant will agree on one thing: they have never seen the man sit still. Whether in a studio, or on a set, or in his office, or at home, he is constantly on the go.

It's misleading, of course, to talk about studio, set, office or home in the singular, because Merchant's perpetual motion persona is based on multiples: he has offices in New York, London and Mumbai and in each of these cities, he has a home. His film sets are locations all over the world, with Paris a particular favourite.

Merchant is sure that this unwillingness to sit still came from his father. His dealership in textiles kept Merchant Senior rooted to Mumbai, but his restlessness showed itself in his two passions, motorcar racing and racehorses.

Watching both, and with more than the occasional flutter on the racetrack gave him the excitement he craved. "I am sure I imbibed that spirit of gambling from him." At the age of nine came, what Merchant regards as, his defining moment. His father had become president of the Bombay branch of the Muslim League, and was determined that he and his family live in India.

He asked the young Ismail to address a political rally 10,000 strong: the local `mullah' had already coached the boy, but his inherent showmanship made his speech far more powerful than even the priest had anticipated.

"I had stirred up that crowd." Merchant now says, "I had set up emotions that I couldn't control. I think of our films in the same way. Once we begin work on them, they assume a life of their own and there is no stopping and no going back. I knew then I could move any crowd. I know now that I can finish any film."

When he was 13, he met Nimmi, who was then in her twenties and already a star of Hindi films. "Our families were close and she would visit our house often. One evening she said. `You are coming to my film's premiere with me'. So I rode in an open horse-drawn carriage with her. At the theatre there was a band and a huge crowd, and suddenly it began to rain marigolds on us! I think that's when I fell in love with cinema, its glamour, and its giddiness. That's when I also fell in love with Nimmi. To her, of course, I was a companion and a younger brother, and she took me to all the Bombay studios. `One day,' she said, `You too will be a star'."

Bombay's St. Xaviers' College, which has a long history of encouraging artistic (and showmanship) talent, was the ideal place for him.

His B.A. degree in Political Science was incidental to the main business at hand, which was to launch Ismail Merchant, the producer. His forte was `Variety Shows' and his persuasive powers then were developed enough to get the leading playback singers of the day to perform there.

Flanked by actresses Sally Field and Goldie Hawn at the premiere of "In Custody".

He even got Nargis, then the Hindi film star, to come as a chief guest at one of these events. The last show he produced was a `Benefit'. For himself: it got him the funds to go to New York, with the ostensible purpose of getting an MBA.

He, of course, got more than that. He got a taste for European cinema — in Bombay he had grown up on Hollywood movies — and along with Bergman, De Sica and Fellini, he discovered the films of Satyajit Ray.

He also got a part-time job as a messenger for the Indian delegation at the United Nations. The legend is that Merchant posed as a delegate here. "Not true," Merchant said with an impish smile, "I didn't pose as a delegate. But there was this receptionist who took a fancy to me. She always announced me as `The Indian delegate.'"

Here he made contacts which would be useful later, and in the advertising agency in which he began to work, he made some more: eventually they gave him the finance he needed to make his first film, a 14-minute short called "The Creation of Woman," which was nominated for a short-film Oscar, and thus it became his calling card in Hollywood.

When he went to Hollywood, did he really call himself the `Prince of Colaba' as it is rumoured? "How could I," Merchant says, tongue firmly in cheek, "When I came from Bombay Central?"

There's also the story of how this `Prince' met Paul Newman in a restaurant and said he would one day make a film with him. Newman, then already a star, was amused at the young Indian's cockiness and gave Merchant a ride on his bike. (Many years later, Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward did, in fact make a Merchant-Ivory film).

If an Indian and an American were to team up, you would expect the Indian to be the quiet, artistic one and the American to be the extroverted, backslapping conjurer of funds. The role reversal in the Merchant-Ivory partnership, a result of their temperaments, is symptomatic of their ability to go against convention. The biggest was to make the small budget movie consistently successful in a Hollywood, which worships megabucks. The other was to keep a winning team together and not let egos get in the way.

Their getting together also meant the meeting of East and West, much in the news in the 1960s. In this, they were joined by writer Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, a Pole married to an Indian and then living in Delhi, and so an East-West amalgam herself. From this partnership resulted the early films. "The Householder," "Shakespeare Wallah," "The Guru," "Bombay Talkies" and later "Heat and Dust."

The partnership's longevity is celebrated by the Guinness Book of World Records as `The Most Enduring Filmmaking Collaboration.' "We live in New York," Merchant says, and you realise he is talking not about his family, but this triumvirate, which is his family though he has relatives in Mumbai.

Ismail lives on the 14th floor, Jim on the 12th and Ruth on the 7th of the same building, and they have breakfast together every morning.

What do they do during weekday evenings? "Oh, go to a show, an art exhibition opening. We would go out much more, but Ruth doesn't want to." Ah, the family again. "Oh yes, and we go to the restaurants." Ismail Merchant certainly would. He has built a parallel reputation for himself as a gourmet cook, appearing on TV shows, writing books on food like "Filming and Feasting in France."

He charms stars — or that's how the story goes — into appearing in his films at a fraction of their normal fees, simply by cooking great meals for them. (I know this from personal experience. He once conjured up a great fish curry for us in exactly 15 minutes).

But it's cinema, which he eats, sleeps and drinks. And does so with passion. It's a love, which is returned in full, because in their nearly four decades-old association, Merchant-Ivory have made 46 films, and done so with many honours.

Their films have a regular place at all the great film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and have won major prizes. They have received as many as 29 Oscar nominations, winning six Academy Awards and 11 British Academy awards. By any standards, that's a staggering achievement.

Surprisingly, Ismail Merchant received an Indian Government recognition only recently (a Padma Bhushan). It's especially strange because Merchant has kept his Indian passport and wears his nationality proudly.

A case of the prophet being without honour in his own country? It could also be because he is rather unassuming. If you had been to the sets of "Cotton Mary", the film he directed in Kochi, Kerala, you would have seen no special treatment for him, neither a limo nor a grand office. At lunchtime, every body sat at a long table, helped themselves to a quick lunch and went back to work. By `Every body', one meant from director, producer to drivers and peons...

In Ismail Merchant's book, this isn't democracy. This is family. Once you are admitted into it, you stay there forever.

Shashi Kapoor acted in the first Merchant-Ivory production in 1963, and did "In Custody" exactly 30 years later. Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scachi, Richard Robbins (the music composer), cameramen, technicians... once they are part of Merchant-Ivory production, they are there for as long as they want to be.

It's this sense of togetherness, which enables Ismail Merchant to make some of the best Hollywood films at some of the lowest Hollywood budgets. And one evening on his recent visit to Mumbai he told you why it could only be an Indian who could do this; there they were, sisters, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, all gathered together for a family dinner. A joint family dinner.

Ismail Merchant's got his own joint family in Hollywood as well. So of course they make the best movies at a fraction of the price.

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