Ismail Merchant Biography

Born Ismail Noormohammed Abdul Rehman, December 25, 1936, in Bombay, India; died of complications after surgery, May 25, 2005, in London, England. Film producer. With charm and a refusal to take no for an answer, producer Ismail Merchant was responsible for making several period films that delighted audiences around the world. He and partner James Ivory also have been credited with bringing independently produced films to the fore-front and helping place Miramax Films and Sony Picture Classics, two independent distributors, on the map. Merchant's films were critically acclaimed and also helped several British stars become household names. Helena Bonham Carter commented to Entertainment Weekly 's Missy Schwartz, "[Merchant] was a life force for whom the word impossible had no meaning. He had endless passion, and made films because he believed in beauty."

Merchant was born on December 25, 1936. His father, Noormohamed Haji Abdul Rehman, was a successful textile merchant in Bombay, India. The young Merchant attended both Islamic and Jesuit schools during his youth. His father was a member of the Muslim League, an organization that campaigned for the creation of Pakistan. During a political rally, Merchant, at nine years old, spoke in front of 10,000 people in support of the Muslim League's leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. He would later use this speaking ability to persuade both actors and film companies to join his productions.

Though Merchant could have had a future in politics, he followed his second passion: cinema. Rising Indian actress Nimmi befriended the teenager, and took him to studios and movie premieres, where he met numerous industry people. This, however, was just a hobby as his parents encouraged him to focus on his education. He studied political science and English literature at St. Xavier's College in Bombay. Merchant, however, could not resist the pull of the cinema. He spent more time in the theatrical department than in his classes. He also organized campus variety shows that were hugely successful. He changed his name to Merchant, graduated, and moved to New York to attend New York University. He was able to pay his own way thanks to the success of his variety shows. Though he wanted to earn a masters degree in business administration, the lure of film was just too strong.

Merchant spent time learning about film work from various filmmakers, including Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Satyajit Ray, an Indian filmmaker he had not heard of until he moved to New York. He joined advertising firm McCann-Erickson to find financial backers for a film. Merchant then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the Los Angeles Times ' classified department.

Merchant created his first film, a short titled The Creation of Woman. He persuaded a theater owner to pair the 14-minute film with an Ingmar Berman film for a few days. He also screened it at the Cannes Festival in France. Because his film was shown in a theater for at least three days, it was eligible for an Academy Award nomination, which it did receive. En route to the Cannes Festival, Merchant stopped in New York to see The Sword and the Flute, a documentary made by James Ivory. The two men talked about the film business and Ivory expressed a love for India. A month after their first meeting they formed Merchant Ivory to create adaptations of English novels for the Indian market.

Merchant Ivory's first film was a screen adaptation of The Householder, a comedic book written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The two men enlisted Jhabvala's help. She agreed to write the screen adaptation of her novel, though she had never written a screenplay before. Jhabvala would become the third partner in Merchant Ivory, writing the majority of the screenplays. With Ivory as the director, it was Merchant's job to hire staff, find locations and actors, and locate financial backers. Because of his charm and business acumen, Merchant Ivory films were made cheaply but had the look of lavish productions. In addition to adapting several more of Jhabvala's novels, Merchant and Ivory also looked to authors E.M. Forster, Henry James, and V.S. Naipaul.

Several of Merchant's films went on to both critical and box office success, including Maurice, A Room with a View, Remains of the Day, and Howard's End. The company became known for creating excellent period pieces, though they would later try their hand at modern comedy and drama. Merchant Ivory received 31 Academy award nominations, and won six, but they never won for Best Film or Best Director.

With Merchant's business acumen, the company helped pave the way for other independent directors to find backing during a time where sequels reigned supreme. In a 1999 interview, Ivory said, "He's a natural showman, a great publicist, and he's just very, very good at getting his way," according to the New York Times. Sony Picture Classics, an independent distributor, owed its rise as one of the most successful distributors to its first release, Merchant Ivory's Howard's End. A number of following releases were through Sony and Mira-max, but when Miramax asked that several scenes be cut from the film The Golden Bowl, Merchant raised the funds to buy the film back, and struck a deal with Lions Gate Entertainment. He also was prone to stealing props for various sets, and even posed as the Maharajah of Jodhpur to gain entry to the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles, France, to film a scene even though filming was banned in the hotel.

In addition to keeping films costs low, Merchant would persuade several high-profile actors to accept fees way below their usual asking price. But the careers of Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and Helena Bonham-Carter received help due to their roles in the films of Merchant Ivory. To help out the actors, Merchant would allow them to use his apartments, feed them meals he personally cooked, and once even bailed an actor out of jail.

Merchant also directed his first piece in 1974, Mahatma and the Mad Boy, a short film. It would be 30 years since the formation of Merchant Ivory before Merchant would direct again, this time his first full-length feature, In Custody. He continued to direct several more films after its release.

In addition to his love of the cinema, Merchant's other passion was cooking. He was known for fixing elaborate meals for friends, colleagues, and for everyone on the set to keep morale high. He released two cookbooks, including Passionate Meals: The New Indian cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters, and once owned a French-Indian restaurant in Manhattan. Merchant also wrote a memoir, My Passage From India.

Merchant had been having stomach problems for a year when he entered a London hospital for surgery. He died on May 25, 2005, from complications a day after his operation. He was 68. He is survived by his sisters Sabherbanu Kabadia, Sahida Retiwala, Ruksana Khan, and Rashida Bootwala. Several films Merchant produced will be released posthumously, including The White Countess with Ralph Fiennes, and The Goddess, a modern version of Bollywood musicals that are very popular in India. Sources: Chicago Tribune, May 26, 2005, sec. 3, p. 9; CNN. com, Movies/05/25/merchant.death.ap/ (May 25, 2005); Entertainment Weekly, June 10, 2005, p. 29; E! Online, 0,1,16630,00.html?eol.tkr (May 26, 2005); Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2005, p. B13; New York Times, May 26, 2005, p. A27; Times (London), May 26, 2005, p. 66; Washington Post, May 26, 2005, p. B6.

Ashyia N. Henderson

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