After more than 30 years as one of the most distinguished producers in the world, Ismail Merchant has now made his theatrical feature directing debut with "In Custody," a celebration of India's endangered Urdu culture in the form of a tale about a scholar's arduous, sometimes amusing attempt to record a legendary poet's reciting of his own work.
With director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant has made such sophisticated films as "The Remains of the Day" and "Howards End," to list only their more recent successes.
" 'This is my film,' I told Jim. 'You here have to be secondary,' " says Merchant, a handsome, jovial man with an easy, relaxing manner. The 56-year-old Bombay-born producer was chatting over morning coffee at a local hotel recently.
Merchant has already directed films for TV: the short "Mahatma and the Mad Boy" and the feature-length "The Courtesans of Bombay." Indeed, it was en route to Cannes with his short "The Creation of Woman," a 1961 Oscar nominee, that he met Ivory, who soon agreed to form a partnership with him to make English-language features in India for the international market.
It's a partnership that has been both prolific and highly praised, and one that shows no signs of slowing down. This spring, Merchant Ivory Productions, in its deal with Disney, will begin filming "Jefferson in Paris," starring Nick Nolte, to be followed by a film version of Henry James' "Wings of the Dove." (Sony Pictures International is releasing "In Custody," which opens today.)
In his spare time, Merchant, who says he finds cooking a therapeutic release from the pressures of filmmaking, has two new books crammed with recipes just out, "Ismail Merchant's Florence: Filming and Feasting in Tuscany" (Harry Abrams), derived from his experiences while filming "A Room With a View" in the mid-'80s, and "Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters" (Hyperion).
" 'In Custody' was an opportunity to do something about the language, Urdu, which is my language," says Merchant. "In the past 10 years, schools (in India) have removed their departments of Urdu. Political pundits have taken it into their hands to twist and turn the minds of people on this issue, promoting Hindi and branding Urdu the language of Muslims.
"Yet great Hindi scholars and writers wrote in Urdu. Hindi is a staccato language, whereas there are rich poetic qualities in Urdu. It has a graciousness no other Indian language possesses except Bengali. The cultural ambience of Urdu is so potent. The popular songs in Indian films are still written in Urdu--that's comforting."
The inspiration for a film calling attention to the beauties of Urdu and its literature came about when Merchant's old friend, Anita Desai, wrote the novel "In Custody," published in 1984. "I've known her over 30 years," he said. "I stayed in Anita's flat with her mother when we were making our first film, 'The Householder,' in 1963." Merchant cast another old friend, Shashi Kapoor, who coincidentally had starred in "The Householder," to play the poet.
Once a handsome matinee idol, Kapoor has gained a lot of weight since the death of his wife, actress Jennifer Kendal, several years ago. But his appearance with its aura of resignation, is perfect for the role of Nur, a great poet who has burned out and has turned his life over to revelry with a group of hangers-on. Om Puri plays the scholar who has engaged in the thankless, frustrating task of trying to preserve Nur's poetry, and the internationally renowned Shabana Azmi is Nur's put-upon No. 2 wife, a former prostitute who is convinced that she is as great a poet as her husband.
"Anita wrote a first draft of the screenplay, but not knowing cinematic language, it was very dry," Merchant said. "We collaborated on the next draft, and we brought in Sharukh Husain for the final draft. I found locations in Bhopal, the center of Muslim culture, with the largest number of mosques in Asia. There's something dramatic and compelling about these ancient settings.
"The book was completely fictional, but for Nur's poetry I obtained the rights to the poems of India's greatest poet of the 20th Century, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. We shot the film in just under eight weeks, all in Bhopal or just outside it."
Merchant is especially proud of Larry Pizer's beautiful camerawork--"visually, it's like a feast," he says--and the film's evocative score by Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan, which he says is "very Indian but includes Strauss and Mozart."
Merchant says that he's not at all a frustrated director and is content in his full-time job of running Merchant Ivory Productions. "Whenever I wanted to do something as a director I've done it," he says. "It did take six years to find the time to make 'In Custody.' Immediately after we finished shooting 'The Remains of the Day' Jim started editing it while I left for India for at least eight months."
Merchant Ivory started operation in Bombay, then added a London office and finally, 17 years ago, established its main headquarters in Upstate New York, where it has its own post-production facility in a converted barn.
After a string of prestigious literary adaptations, Merchant Ivory returns to an original script by Jhabvala from an idea of Ivory's with "Jefferson in Paris," which will deal with Thomas Jefferson's romance with Maria Causway, an Englishwoman living in Spain. Greta Scacchi will play Maria, Gwyneth Paltrow will be Jefferson's daughter, Patsy, and Thandie Newton, the star of the Australian film "Flirting," has been cast as Sally Hemings, the slave generally believed to have been Jefferson's mistress. It is scheduled for release early next year, when "Wings of the Dove" is to start production. Following that will be a film for Warners on Picasso's life with his lover, Francoise Gilot.
No wonder Merchant, with an increasingly heavy schedule, looks for respite as a gourmet chef. "I love to cook, mixing herbs and spices and creating something," he said. "Serving a wonderful meal and a glass of wine can change people's outlooks--and it adds to the spirit of life."