Ismail Merchant died on the 25th of May 2005 at the age of 68; he was an Indian-born film producer and director.
Born Ismail Noormuhammad Abdul Rahman in Bombay on the 25th of December 1936, he was the son of Hazra (maiden name, Memon) and Noormohamed Haji Abdul Rehman, a Mumbai textile dealer.
He grew up bilingual in Gujarati and Urdu, and learned Arabic and English at school. As a child at the age of 9, he delivered an emotionally riveting speech about partition, held at a political rally in front of a crowd of 10,000 people, inspiring the entire community.
He met his first mentor in 1949 thanks to family networks and consequently aged 13, he developed a close friendship with Nimmi, an Indian film actress in her twenties, who introduced him to the glamorous studios of Bombay, which was the hub of India’s film industry.
It was she who inspired his ambitious rise to stardom. In 1963, MIP premiered its first production, The Householder, based upon a novel by Jhabvala (she also wrote the screenplay).
This feature became the first Indian-made film to be distributed internationally by a major American studio, Columbia Pictures.
However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the partnership “hit on a successful formula for studied, slow-moving pieces … Merchant Ivory became known for their attention to period detail and the opulence of their sets”.
The late 80s and early 90s marked the height of Merchant’s success. There were Oscar nominations for A Room With A View, Howards End and Remains Of The Day, and the first two of those won Baftas.
Merchant-Ivory had created a powerful genre of their own, which surely influenced Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age Of Innocence in 1993.
But many critics and movie-makers detested what they regarded as Merchant-Ivory’s ersatz classiness, their uncritical, touristic approach to fine buildings and fancy manners, and their seeming indifference to the hidden cruelties of class division.
Their films were derided as reactionary, pseudo-literary products that fitted in all too easily with the Reagan-Thatcher years.
Some people joked that reversing the order of their surnames gave a better idea of their stock in trade.
In 2003, Merchant was made an honorary fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts; he received the Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, and in 2002 he received the Padma Bhusan from the Indian government, which is the equivalent of a knighthood.