Meet Ismail Merchant. Our most prominent filmmaker abroad. He was there before Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta and Shekhar Kapur. His films have been huge hits and have also received critical acclaim. Howard’s End cost $8 million to make and grossed over $70 million. It collected three Oscars. A Room With a View, also based on an E.M. Forster novel, did equally well. But there is a downside. For every successful Merchant-Ivory film, there have been a large number that were excruciatingly bad. I dare anyone to sit through the whole of Surviving Picasso or the more recent Cotton Mary. The company has not had a hit since The Remains of the Day. And that was 10 years ago.
Ismail Merchant was born Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman. He grew up a stone’s throw from the Metro cinema in Bombay where he saw the Hollywood blockbusters. At the age of 13, he was invited to accompany Nimmi, a family friend, to the premiere of her first film, Barsaat. He went there with her in an open-topped Cadillac. He says in his memoirs, My Passage from India, that a shower of marigolds rained down on their car. I take that marigolds bit and much else in the book with a large dose of salt. But from that day, his father’s dreams for him to become a doctor or a lawyer were doomed. Ismail Merchant wanted to be a part of the film world.
He honed his skills as an impresario at St Xavier’s College in Bombay. Using his guile, he organised variety programmes with Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar as the draw. They sang for free in return for trumped-up awards. Part of the evening’s take would end up in the pockets of the organising committee. He went to New York to study business administration and returned to Bombay, with James Ivory in tow, as a filmmaker. The deal was simple. Ismail would garner the funds and James would direct. The two had met by chance. James was a novice with no experience at all in directing feature films. They picked Ruth Jhabvala’s novel, The Householder, for their first film. Satyajit Ray’s cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, wielded the camera. James panicked when he saw the technicians arrive at the train station from Calcutta with tons of equipment. He wanted to call the whole thing off. But The Householder turned out to be rather good. It cost five lakhs. Shashi Kapoor and Leela Naidu were paid peanuts. No actor has since then got rich working in a Merchant-Ivory film.
In the next 40 years, the duo made more than 30 films. James Ivory has developed a knack for making elegant period pieces based on the classics. He was brilliant at it. He was on less sure footing when it came to contemporary themes. Ismail also liked to direct from time to time. While he was an inspired producer who made things happen, he was not so hot as a director. The films he directed did not make waves. V.S. Naipaul has some harsh things to say about the adaptation of his novel, The Mystic Masseur. My Passage from India gives a fairly straightforward narration of Ismail Merchant’s progress from childhood in Bombay to the present day. He will be 66 this month and has good reason to be proud of his accomplishments. Unfortunately this book is deadly dull. There is too much of self-praise. Just about every photograph in the book, and there are so many, has the author in it. More often than not, he is next to a famous person. There is one of him sitting with Nehru who is not taking the slightest interest. Sometimes the author’s memory fails him. Daman is north of Mumbai and nowhere near Goa. Bareilly is east, not west, of Delhi. The European restaurant in Bombay was Gourdon, not Gordon.
Ismail Merchant gloats over the successes of the Merchant-Ivory combination. That’s all right up to a point. But it would have made a more interesting book had he dwelled on some of their failures. These are quickly glossed over. He does not even admit that there have been failures. I wish he would stop being the irresistible huckster for a while and try some introspection. This book is a public relations exercise. John Kenneth Galbraith and Anita Desai have written glowing blurbs for their friend. They should be ashamed of themselves.