High Adventure

The action-packed "The Deceivers" isn't the kind of feature one normally associates with Merchant Ivory films--and production turmoils they've faced on location in India have added their own extra excitement to the project.

"You're right--it's completely different for us," said producer Ismail Merchant. "We're known for doing E. M. Forster ("Room With a View," "Maurice") and Henry James ("The Europeans"). 'Deceivers' is in the same genre as a 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' Which is certainly a switch."

Directed by Nicholas Meyer ("Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," TV's "The Day After") and starring Pierce Brosnan, it's based on the John Masters' novel about the 19th-Century thuggee cult, which attacked and murdered Western visitors in India. The storyline finds British officer Brosnan going undercover as a member of the cult.

"It's strictly action-adventure--a 'cavalry to the rescue'-type film," said Meyer, who called his ex-"Remington Steele" star "Errol Flynn--with talent."

The $6-million pic--co-produced by Cinecom--is the sixth Merchant-Ivory film shot in Merchant's homeland. It was marked by serious location troubles--including headlines, police visits to the set (according to Meyer, 50 machine-gun-toting officers surrounded the production offices) and, finally, the arrests of Merchant and co-producer Tim Van Rellim. The charges: obscenity and misrepresentation of Hindu culture.

Among the allegations: that the film glorifies sati , the controversial, outlawed Indian practice in which widows are sacrificed by fire.

"Ridiculous!" said Merchant. "What happened was a mockery--people taking advantage of democratic principles in order to whip up a frenzy." That frenzy grew when the anti-"Deceivers" lobby allegedly spread rumors that the film makers filmed a sati as it really happened. (Tragically, a sati did occur in the country during the filming. But the film company was in another locale.)

According to Merchant, Meyer and several other crew members, the charges had to do with sour grapes. A would-be crew member, based in Jaipur, wasn't hired when the production learned he'd reportedly overcharged a previous production "some $2 million." Said Meyer: "So we decided not to hire him. And as a result, he vowed to get even and stop the film."

Merchant spoke from his NYC office, just three days after leaving India, where charges had finally been dismissed by the Rajasthan High Court, freeing Merchant and Van Rellim to leave the country. But they'll have to eventually return--to sort out a still-pending civil lawsuit. Merchant Ivory also has a pending countersuit.

All this aside, the pic still managed to wrap a day early. "Which goes to show that these things have a way of sounding a lot more 'large' from a distance," laughed Meyer, also speaking from NYC.

Merchant said India's central government remains "very supportive" of the film (which has just begun post-production in London). In fact, he said, the project's been on the company's boards for about 10 years. Marek Kanievska ("Less Than Zero") was once going to direct, then Stephen Frears ("Prick Up Your Ears"). And prior to Brosnan, Christopher Reeve and then Treat Williams were going to star.

As for coming attractions: Merchant said that James Ivory is currently working with Tama Janowitz on a script based on her best-selling collection of short stories, "Slaves of New York." Casting will begin soon.

"The story, of course, takes place in New York," said Merchant, laughing with relief. "So we will not be filming in India."

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