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July 8, 2000

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Mystic Merchant

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Firdaus Ali in Toronto

"If I wasn't making movies, I would probably be composing scintillating music," says Bombay-born producer-director-distributor Ismail Merchant. Merchant is better known as one half of the prolific Merchant-Ivory Production team, which has rendered scores of literary, beautifully shot, languid, sometimes erotic films for over 35 years. Films that belong to the genre of "perceptive or sensible" cinema.

The movie mogul was on a short trip to Toronto for the release of his latest film Cotton Mary starring Madhur Jaffrey, Sakina Jaffrey, Neena Gupta and Greta Scacchi, among others.

While most Merchant-Ivory films are adaptations from great novels, it may not always be so. "It could be an item from a newspaper clipping. But the subject has to be something close to my heart," says Merchant, whose films are known for exploring the clash of different cultures -- Indian and English, American and European.

It is this theme that Merchant wants to keep exploring in his films. "I grew up in Bombay, but spent most of my adult life in America, so this naturally is a theme very close to me. My first feature, In Custody, was adapted from Anita Desai's novel about the destruction of the Urdu language and culture in India. This subject matter was very close to me as Urdu is my language and my culture." Naturally, the film won four National awards in India in 1993.

A great fan of Satyajit Ray, Jean Renoir and Francois Truffaut, Merchant grew up on a staple diet of "cinematically brilliant films" like Rashomon and Gone with the Wind. "As a child I remember doing the rounds of Bombay studios with actress Nimmi. Amongst the Indian milieu were films by Bimal Roy, Mehboob, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor," recalls Merchant.

Besides his cinematic endeavours as a producer and director, he is famous for the rather unconventional methods he uses to conduct his business. Impersonating an Indian maharajah is just one of them. Barging into the dressing rooms of actors he doesn't know (like Paul Newman) is another. Known to go to any extent to get a film made and completed, he is also known to be quite stingy, which may be his secret for production expertise.

Born on Christmas day, the 63-year-old filmmaker with intense, dark eyes is known for his quicksilver moods and the digestive system of a native Bombayite. He uses these ingredients in delectable doses. In fact, on top of everything else, he is a masterful cook. Whenever members of his crew or cast get uppity, he opens his spice cabinet and serves them a humble, incendiary curry. It quells the uprising every time.

A charming man, Merchant could probably charm the tusks off a rampaging elephant. He has a long history of staging outrageous stunts in pursuit of the things he wants -- be they money, actors, locations -- and getting away with it. Actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Joanne Woodward, Hugh Grant and Greta Scacchi line up for sometimes miserable working conditions and the Hollywood equivalent of peanuts, succumbing to his unrivalled charm of persuasion.

Cotton Mary is set in the post-colonial India of the 1950s and unfolds the saga of two Anglo-Indian sisters, Mary and Blossom (played superbly by Madhur Jaffrey and Neena Gupta), their Anglo-Indian niece Rosie (Sakina Jaffrey) and their tangled, and complicated interactions with a British family.

"The film has a dramatic storyline with different shades to it. It is about conflicting identities and belonging, love and betrayal, dreams and fears, dejection and desperation, life and madness," says Merchant. In short, a rollercoaster ride of emotions, which is true of all Merchant-Ivory films.

Cotton Mary dwells around Mary, a nanny (ayah) who procures a permanent position in the Macintosh household, and her growing friendship with the lady of the house, "Madam Lily Macintosh". Her services are indispensable when she helps save Lily's second child from the grips of death.

But things take a dramatic turn when Mary tries to impersonate and live the life of her mistress, even if for a short while. Her life disintegrates around her when she unravels her niece's affair with John Macintosh. In a final effort to reconcile things, she is unable to save her own identity and in her aspirations, turns half-mad.

"You have to see the film to live the emotions of Mary," smiles Merchant. The film gets its name from Mary's love for English cotton.

While it is often mistakenly believed now that "Merchant Ivory" is one man, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory did not meet until 1960, when Merchant was 24 and the California-born director Ivory was 32. Merchant had only co-produced one film up to that point, the Oscar-nominated 1960 short The Creation of Woman. The two shared a passion for "making good films" and came together forming a resilient partnership that has lasted more than three decades and given cinema lovers over 40 films.

Merchant's financial acumen and marketing expertise as a producer have contributed a lot to the team's success and enhanced their international profile. The duo's first film together, The Householder (1963), was also the first film made in India to be distributed worldwide by Columbia Pictures. It was also Merchant and Ivory's first collaboration with screenwriter Ruth Prawer-Jhabvala, who worked on nearly 20 of their most successful (and representative) films.

As their partnership developed, Merchant and Ivory moved away from Indian subjects and developed a reputation for intelligent, tasteful adaptations of modern literary classics, especially those of E M Forster and Henry James. Among their early efforts were Shakespearewallah (1965), the story of a travelling theatrical troupe in India; Roseland (1977), a bittersweet romantic trilogy; The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984), both from James novels; and Heat and Dust (1983). Eat My Dust.

Following the commercial and critical enthusiasm for the Forster adaptations, A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), and Howard's End (1992), the teams produced the immaculate historic reconstruction, Remains of the Day (1993), which, like Howard's End, pitted actors Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in a battle of the sexes. It earned nine Academy Award nominations.

Merchant also turned to direction and his debut film, Mahatma and the Mad Boy (1973) won him great critical acclaim. His later films as director, In Custody (1994) and La Proprietaire (1996), proved his genius as a director. For television, he directed and wrote the documentary, The Courtesans of Bombay (1983), produced the drama Noon Wine (1985), and worked on several other productions sans Ivory.

Few know that he is a gourmet cook. Merchant opened a restaurant in 1993 and has authored a series of cookbooks, including Ismail Merchant's Florence, Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine and Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals, which was a bestseller in India.

But back to films. Among future ventures in store are an adaptation of V S Naipaul's brilliant novel, Mystic Masseur, featuring Om Puri, Sakina Jaffrey, Asif Mandvi and Ayesha Dharker. "It is the story of a young man who is a masseur by profession and who nurtures the ambition to become a successful politician."

Merchant is now also turning his irrepressible energy to distributing films not made under the Merchant-Ivory banner. Along with numerous awards he has been honoured with two honorary doctorates from Illinois Wesleyan University and Bard College.

Recently, he was presented with the 'Pride of India' award at the India International Film Awards function in New York. "Awards aren't necessary, but it feels nice to be recognized for your work." But an even greater reward for him is the "making of a good film. The fact that audiences almost always seek out a good film holds true even today. The only condition is that you have to give it to them!"


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