Monday, December 25, 2017

Born Today In 1936: Film Producer Ismail Merchant

Ismail Merchant was born today, December 25, in 1936. He was an Indian-born film producer and director. Along with James Ivory, his films have won six Academy Awards.

Born Ismail Noor Md. Abdul Rahman in Bombay (Mumbai).  When he was 11, he and his family were caught up in the 1947 partitioning of India. His father was president of the Muslim League, and refused to move to Pakistan. Merchant later said that he carried memories of the 'butchery and riots' into adulthood.

He studied at St. Xavier's College, Bombay & received BA degree of University of Bombay. It was here that he developed his love for movies. When he was 22, he went to USA to study at New York University & received MBA degree. He supported himself by working as messenger for the UN and used this opportunity to persuade Indian delegates to fund his film projects. He said of this experience "I was not intimidated by anyone or anything." Immersed in new world of art and culture, it was here that Merchant discovered the films of Bengali Movie Director, Satyajit Ray, as well as those by European artists such as Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, and Federico Fellini. In 1961, he made a short film, The Creation of Woman. It was shown at Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination.

Merchant met director James Ivory at a screening, in New York City, of Ivory's documentary The Sword and the Flute in 1959. In May 1961, Merchant and Ivory formed the film production company Merchant Ivory Productions. Merchant and Ivory were long-term life partners. Their professional and romantic partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant's death in 2005.

Their partnership has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest partnership in independent cinema history. Until Merchant's death in 2005, they produced nearly 40 films, including a number of award winners. Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was the screenwriter for most of their productions.

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". Their first success in this style was Jhabvala's adaptation of Henry James's The Europeans. Their biggest successes included Howard's End, The Remains of the Day, and A Room with a View.

In addition to producing, Merchant directed a number of films and two television features. Merchant made his film directorial debut with 1993's In Custody based on a novel by Anita Desai, and starring Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor. Filmed in Bhopal, India, it won National Awards from the Government of India for Best Production Design and Special Jury award for lead actor Shashi Kapoor. His second directing feature,The Proprietor, starred Jeanne Moreau, Sean Young, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Christopher Cazenove, and was filmed on location in Paris.

Of his partnership with Ivory and Jhabvala, Merchant once commented: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory . . . I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"

Merchant died in London on May 25, 2005, at age 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers. 

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