Producer and Director. Nationality: Indian. Born: Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman in Bombay, 25 December 1936. Education: Attended St. Xavier's College, Bombay, arts degree; New York University, M.A. in business administration. Career: Worked at United Nations and in advertising agency; 1960—produced short film, The Creation of Woman , nominated for Academy Award; 1961—met director James Ivory and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, formed Merchant-Ivory Productions; 1963—produced first MIP film, The Householder ; 1972—produced first U.S. film, Savages ; 1974—made directorial debut with short, Mahatma and the Mad Boy ; 1983—first feature-length film as director, The Courtesans of Bombay.
Films as Producer
(all directed by James Ivory unless otherwise noted)
The Creation of Woman (Schwep) (short)
Gharbar ( The Householder )
Shakespeare Wallah (+ ro as theater manager)
The Guru (+ ro as compere)
Bombay Talkie (+ ro as film producer)
Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilisation (doc)
Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls (Korner) (doc short)
Mahatma and the Mad Boy (+ d) (doc short); The Wild Party
Autobiography of a Princess
Sweet Sounds (Robbins) (doc short)
Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures (+ ro as extra); The Europeans
Jane Austen in Manhattan
Heat and Dust (+ ro as peasant); The Courtesans of Bombay (doc) (+ d, co-sc)
A Room with a View
My Little Girl (Kaiserman)
The Deceivers (Meyer); The Perfect Murder (Hai)
Slaves of New York (+ ro as extra)
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge
The Ballad of the Sad Café (Callow); Second Daughter (Kaiserman)
The Remains of the Day ; In Custody (+ d)
Street Musicians of Bombay (Robbins)
Jefferson in Paris (+ ro as Tipoo Sultan's Ambassador); The Feast of July (Menaul); Lumière et compagnie (Moon)
Surviving Picasso ; Propritaire ( The Proprietor ) (+ dir)
Side Streets (Gerber) (exec)
A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries
Cotton Mary (+ dir)
The Golden Mary ( La Coupe d'Or )
By MERCHANT: books—
Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine (cookbook), New York, 1986.
Hullaballoo in Old Jaypore: The Making of The Deceivers, London, 1988.
By MERCHANT: articles—
Interview with Jaz Mohan, Basu Chatterji, and Arun Kaul, in Close-Up (Bombay), October/December 1968.
Interview with Amena Meer, in Interview (New York), April 1994.
"The Maker of Dreams," interview with Shahrukh Husain, in Index on Censorship (London), 1995.
On MERCHANT: books—
Pym, John, Wandering Company: Twenty-one Years of Merchant Ivory Films , London/New York, 1983.
Long, Robert Emmet, The Films of Merchant Ivory , New York, 1991.
On MERCHANT: articles—
Gillett, John, "Merchant-Ivory," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1973.
Gillett, John, "A Princess in London," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1974.
Arora, Nina, "The Dream Merchant from New York," in Film World (Bombay), February 1976.
Watts, Janet, "Three's Company," in Observer (London), 17 June 1979.
Bergson, Phillip, "The Producer," in What's On in London , 27 January 1983.
Malcolm, Derek, "The Wizard behind the Ivory Trade," in The Guardian (London), 3 February 1983.
Newman, Charles, "Ismail Merchant: Snowballs to Eskimos," in AIP & Co (London), July 1984.
Fistenberg, P., "A Class Act Turns Twenty-Five," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1987.
Callow, Simon, "Pair Excellence," in Evening Standard (London), 12 March 1992.
Dalrymple, William, "Star of India," in Sunday Times Magazine (London), 5 June 1994.
Naughton, John, "Profile," in Empire (London), July 1994.
Giovannini, Joseph, and Marina Faust, "Ismail Merchant," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1996.
"Collective Works of the Merchant Ivory Troika," in Variety (New York), September 30-November 3 1996.
Kemp, P., "In a Family Way," in Variety (New York), October 28-November 3 1996.
Roberts, J., "A Duo With a View," in Variety (New York), October 28-November 3 1996.
* * *
The 35-year producer-director partnership of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory is now officially enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest collaboration in the history of cinema. To their two names should be joined that of the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, scriptwriter on most of their films. The reason for the partnership's endurance, it is generally agreed, lies in an exceptionally happy balance of similarities and contrasts between its members. All three, despite their very different backgrounds, share cultured, cosmopolitan sensibilities; but while Ivory and Jhabvala are quiet and self-effacing, with nothing of the huckster about them, Merchant is outgoing, energetic, charming, and irresistibly persuasive.
It was not until their 15th feature together, A Room with a View , that Merchant-Ivory went securely into profit, but that never deterred Merchant in his tireless quest for finance. "If you have enthusiasm, and a sincere belief in what you are doing," he declares, "money is no problem." A colleague of his (quoted by Robert Emmet Long) describes him as "like an elephant outside the financier's door. You can see him through the glass, you cannot shift him, he won't go away, he is very patient, and there is always the chance that he will come crashing in."
To be an independent producer, Merchant has observed, "you have to be a master of survival." If Merchant-Ivory has not only survived, but remained staunchly independent, it is due largely to Merchant's negotiating acumen and business training. Few producers are as well qualified to see through the industry's notoriously baroque accounting practices. "Strange charges are applied to your film's earnings," he notes. "Executives buy suits from Armani and charge them to your quarterly report. You have to have an eagle's-eye watch on them all the time." He keeps an equally close eye on the company's own accounts: Merchant-Ivory productions are famous for their tight budgeting and for looking a lot more expensive than they are. Major stars are cajoled into working for well below their normal asking rate, and valuable props are borrowed rather than bought—often for free.
Thanks to these shrewd financial tactics, Merchant-Ivory has maintained an independence of operation rare for a company of such modest size. Remarkably few projects have had to be aborted for want of finance, and almost all—especially since the worldwide success of A Room with a View —have enjoyed wide international release through major distribution networks. Yet the company has kept Hollywood safely at arm's-length, retaining control over subject, script, casting, and final cut. Pressures to go down-market, to embark on more crowd-pleasing ventures, have been resisted. All these achievements can be credited almost entirely to Merchant.
Still, those who criticize Merchant-Ivory for making (in the director Alan Parker's dismissive phrase) "Laura Ashley films" might well retort that an excursion or two down-market might not be a bad thing. Certainly the company has increasingly tended to concentrate on literary-based "heritage cinema," partly no doubt because audience response to their occasional forays into more robust territory— Savages , The Wild Party , Slaves of New York —has been less than enthusiastic. But while even Merchant-Ivory's strongest admirers have detected something slightly airless about such latter-day offerings as Jefferson in Paris , there is no evidence that this tendency has stemmed from specifically financial pressure being brought to bear by Merchant.
It may be a sign of restlessness that in recent years Merchant has begun to branch out: into directing on his own account, and into producing films directed by people other than Ivory. As yet, he has not ranged too far afield. The other directors have mainly been members of the Merchant-Ivory team such as Connie Kaiserman, associate producer on many of their productions, and regular actors in their films such as Simon Callow. Merchant's own directorial efforts, clearly much influenced by Ivory, have aroused little excitement. The partnership with Ivory and Jhabvala seems likely to remain his chief commitment; understandably so, providing as it does the ideal vehicle to fulfill his lifelong passion "to make movies, and movies of substance and quality." At the end of the '90s, his most noteworthy production, once again teamed with Ivory and Jhabvala, has been A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. This finely detailed character study of an unusual multicultural family consisting of a writer, his glamorous wife, and their two children, one of whom is adopted, depends on carefully modulated performances and excellent dialogue. Abjuring plot, in the tradition of Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala classics such as Heat and Dust , the film offers a string of finely observed moments, the undramatic crises and recognitions that reveal the inner workings of the those who live together as intimate strangers. The critical, if not box office success of the film demonstrates that Merchant continues to offer meaningful high-culture alternatives to the limited formulas, conventions, and erotic appeals of Hollywood cinema.
—Philip Kemp, updated by R. Barton Palmer