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Ismail Merchant: In Memory

Producer-director Ismail Merchant (right) with Subrata Mitra, the cinematographer who worked with Satyajit Ray, talking at the 1999 Calcutta Film Festival.

The White Countess” (2005) (producer) “Heights” (2004) (producer) “Le Divorce” (2003) (producer) "The Mystic Masseur" (2001) (director) “The Golden Bowl” (2000) (producer) “Cotton Mary” (1999) (director, producer) “The Proprietor" (1996) (director, producer) “Surviving Picasso” (1996) (producer) "Jefferson in Paris" (1995) (producer) "In Custody" (1993) (director) "The Remains of the Day" (1993) (producer) "Howards End" (1992) (producer) “The Ballad of the Sad Café” (1991) (producer) "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge" (1990) (producer) "Slaves of New York" (1989) (producer) “The Deceivers” (1988) (producer) "Maurice" (1987) (producer) "A Room with a View" (1985) (producer) "The Bostonians" (1984) (producer) "Heat and Dust" (1983) (producer) "Quartet" (1981) (producer) “Jane Austen in Manhattan” (1980) (producer) "The Europeans" (1979) (producer) “Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures” (1978) “Roseland” (1977) (producer) "The Wild Party" (1975) (producer) “Mahatma and the Mad Boy” (1974) (director, producer) “Savages” (1972) (producer) "Bombay Talkie" (1970) (producer) “Shakespeare-Wallah” (1965)

The news of Ismail Merchant's death arrived here in the countryside near Toulouse on Thursday morning. We are visiting friends in a hilltop house overlooking vineyards and forests, and fields which will soon blanketed with sunflowers. "It's like a Merchant-Ivory film," we said when we arrived. Not many filmmakers have given their names to lifestyles. Although Mr. Merchant and his partner, the director James Ivory, made films on many subjects, they were best known for stories about intelligent and complicated characters of the middle and upper classes, living more often than not in an elegant setting -- an English country house, a Tuscan villa.

Mr. Merchant died Wednesday in a London hospital, of complications following surgery for abdominal ulcers. The producer of nearly 50 films and television productions and the director of five films of his own, he formed a lifelong professional and personal partnership with Mr. Ivory after they met at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. They were key figures in the development of independent filmmaking, often finding financing and distribution outside conventional channels.

Unlike independents who specialized in outsider and fringe subject matter, they often turned to important novels for their inspiration, including works by E. M. Forster ("Howards End," "A Room With a View," "Maurice") and Henry James ("The Europeans," "The Bostonians," "The Golden Bowl"). Merchant also adapted modern novels, including Kazuo Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day," Kaylie Jones "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," Edward Albee's play of Carson McCullers' "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" and Evan S. Connell's "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge." As a director, he adapted V. S. Naipaul's novel "The Mystic Masseur," about a young Trinidadian of Indian heritage.

On almost every Merchant-Ivory film, the screenplay was by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, born In Germany, raised in Britain, a novelist whose collaboration with Merchant and Ivory began with their first film, an adaptation of her novel "The Householder" (1963), and continued with "Shakespeare Wallah" (1964), about a troupe of Shakespearean actors traveling in India. When she told Mr. Merchant on their first meeting that she had never written a screenplay, she recalled, he advised her to relax, since he had never produced one and Mr. Ivory had never directed one.

"He was the one and truly great maverick producer, a law to himself," said Sir Anthony Hopkins, who starred in "Remains of the Day." In a statement to the BBC, he explained: "He could charm the birds out of the trees, which had its very positive side (most of the time) and sometimes he could get you to work for nothing."

Merchant-Ivory films were not made cheaply, but they were made for far less than standard Hollywood budgets, and their look of elegance or luxury was often because of Mr. Merchant's ability to obtain locations for little or nothing. Warren Hoge, writing in The New York Times, recalled that the producer was able to film inside the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles "by draping himself in robes and posing as the Maharajah of Jodhpur. His crew masqueraded as his entourage and, once inside, set up the shoot."

Mr. Merchant was born in Bombay, India, in 1936. As a young man he enrolled in the MBA program at New York University, always with an eye toward the film industry, and made a short subject which got him invited to Cannes. Although his skills as a businessman kept Merchant-Ivory Productions afloat and successful through many weathers for 45 years, his personal style was relaxed and genial. I remember a Cannes festival in the 1970s when they promoted one of their films, perhaps "The Europeans" (1979) by hosting small dinner parties every night in a villa they rented in the hills above town. Mr. Merchant was a celebrated chef who supervised and helped prepare every meal, a fusion of Indian and French cuisine.

I met him again in 1999 at the Calcutta Film Festival, where he was presenting a retrospective of the great Indian cinematographer Subrata Mitra, who worked with the director Satyajit Ray from the first day of both of their careers. Mr. Merchant had helped to sponsor and underwrite a restoration of Mitra's and Ray's films, and every fternoon in the festival's common room he presided over tea, biscuits and conversation. He had the ability to summon vast amusement and share it with his listeners.

Merchant productions earned 31 Academy Award nominations, inlcuding "best picture" mentions for "Howards End" (1992), "Remains of the Day" (1993) and "A Room With a View" (1985). "The Creation of Woman" (1960), the short film that began his career when he took it to Cannes, was also an Oscar nominee. "Howards End" and "Room With a View" both won as best picture at the BAFTA awards, the "British Oscars."

His death came after he had supervised the restoration of the complete Merchant-Ivory catalogue for release on DVD, a project that is currently underway and has provided many filmgoers with their first opportunity to see not only their better-known films (also including "Quartet," "Heat and Dust," and "Jefferson in Paris") but more obscure documentaries and made-for-TV features. At the time of his death, he was producing "The White Countess," directed by Ivory, starring Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, and set for autumn release.

Mr. Merchant is survived by Mr. Ivory and by his sisters Saherbanu Kabadia, Sahida Retiwala, Ruksana Khan and Rashida Bootwala. His brother-in-law, Waheed Chauhan, told an Indian web site, "His body will be taken to Mumbai, his birth place, in a couple of days for burial."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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