Ismail Merchant, 68; Producer of Stylish, Popular Period Dramas

Times Staff Writer

Ismail Merchant, the Indian-born producer of some of the most acclaimed film adaptations of literary works, from “Howards End” to “The Remains of the Day,” died Wednesday in a London hospital, a day after he underwent surgery for stomach ulcers. He was 68.

With longtime collaborators James Ivory as director and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala as screenwriter, Merchant not only adapted great books by Henry James, E.M. Forster and V.S. Naipaul, but also helped establish the careers of a new wave of renowned English actors, including Hugh Grant (“Maurice”), Helena Bonham-Carter (“A Room with a View”) and Emma Thompson (“Howards End”).

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 28, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Merchant obituary -- The obituary of producer Ismail Merchant in Thursday’s California section said James Schamus was the producer of “Sense and Sensibility.” He was a co-producer.

Although Merchant never won an Academy Award (his films received 31 Oscar nominations, including three best picture selections), he helped teach modern American audiences they need not fear period dramas.


“Merchant Ivory” became something of an art house brand name, a presentation credit suggesting erudition and stateliness, yet not at the cost of stodginess. The films were populated with articulate, passionate and intelligent characters; even with so many tightly stitched corsets, Merchant’s movies could actually be sexy. Though the movies looked expensive, they cost a fraction of the budget of major studio films.

As his works won over critics and moviegoers, Merchant and his partners helped paved the way for the rise of independent distributors Miramax Films and Sony Pictures Classics, the latter of which distributed Merchant’s “Howards End” as its first release.

The Merchant-Ivory model was soon widely imitated, as filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese (“The Age of Innocence”) and Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility”) turned their cameras toward classic books.

In a sense, Merchant was breathing fresh life into a genre that flourished in the earliest days of show business, when literary fiction -- not comic book superheroes -- were a favored source material.

“He actually tapped into and revived a great Hollywood tradition,” said James Schamus, a co-president of Focus Features and the producer of “Sense and Sensibility.” “And he set the bar very high. These guys did it so well, we were always asking ourselves, ‘How can we do it better?’ ”

In a business where professional marriages last hardly any longer than personal ones, Merchant’s association with the German-born Jhabvala and the American Ivory, who was also Merchant’s life partner, spanned more than 40 years and yielded as many movies.


The fruitful collaboration began with 1963’s “The Householder,” which Merchant produced and Ivory directed from Jhabvala’s script of her own novel. Merchant’s last collaboration with Ivory was “The White Countess,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson, which is in production and is scheduled to be released this fall.

“They were the best of friends -- a family -- and it was the perfect professional relationship,” Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, said of the filmmaking troika. “Ruth and Jim were the artists, and Ismail protected their artistry at all costs. He kept the suits at bay.”

In one famous showdown, Merchant was so upset over Miramax’s plans to recut the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film “The Golden Bowl” that he raised the money to buy it back from the company. The film was ultimately released by Lions Gate Entertainment without Miramax’s suggested edits.

“He was the first independent producer,” said Richard Hawley, executive vice president of Merchant Ivory Productions. In addition to raising money for each Merchant Ivory movie, and then selling distribution rights, the company distributed other filmmakers’ movies when no other distributor came forward. Merchant also helped restore the works of Indian filmmaking legend Satyajit Ray.

Merchant is best known for bringing to the screen majestic tales of 19th century romance and heartbreak, stories overflowing with exquisite costumes, polished antiques and strict manners. Yet he also produced several more modern tales, including “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” “Le Divorce” and “Slaves of New York,” the last of which was one of Merchant’s few outright flops.

As a director, he was less successful than he was as a producer, making “In Custody,” “Cotton Mary,” “The Proprietor” and “Mystic Masseur.”

“People misunderstand,” he said in a 2002 interview with The Times. “If you wear a costume and you’re in a stately home -- yes, it’s a costume drama. But people don’t say that it’s also a good story. Our very first film had a good story, delightful characters and wonderful locations. That territory hasn’t changed.”

At the time of his death, Merchant was developing “The Goddess.” To star Tina Turner, the film was to be a modern version of a Bollywood musical, the Indian films Merchant watched as a child that cemented his love of moviemaking. He also produced “Heights,” a modern drama opening in June from first-time director Chris Terrio.

Though many producers serve as hired guns who supervise a movie set, Merchant was adept at raising money, wooing distributors and shaping a film’s marketing and publicity campaign. When “Howards End” grossed more than $1 million at a single New York theater, Merchant suggested an elaborate celebration at the Plaza Hotel to mark the milestone. It turned into a media event.

“You have to be a super salesman. I remember my college [dean] saying I could sell snowballs to Eskimos,” Merchant said in the 2002 interview.

“Ismail was relentless about raising money; he would beg, borrow and steal,” Terrio told The Times on Wednesday. “If he believed in a film, he would stop at nothing, and would even put up his New York apartment as collateral if he had to. I never met anyone who loved movies so much.”

Born in Bombay in 1936 to a family in textiles, Merchant studied business at New York University. He co-directed the 1961 live-action short film “The Creation of Woman,” which was nominated for an Academy Award.

That same year, he met Ivory at a screening of a documentary Ivory had made about Indian miniature painting. Soon thereafter, the neophytes approached Jhabvala in New Dehli about turning her book into a movie, and the team was soon on its way.

Merchant also was a passionate chef, entertaining cast and crew on his movie sets with elaborate meals. “I love to cook -- mixing herbs and spices and creating something,” he said in a 1994 interview.

“Serving a wonderful meal and a glass of wine can change people’s outlooks, and it adds to the spirit of life,” he said.

When “Howards End” was shown at the Cannes Festival, Merchant welcomed the cast in his villa, cooking their meals throughout the festival.

Among other cookbooks, he wrote “Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters.” He once owned a French-Indian restaurant in Manhattan called Pondicherry.

“I’ll be doing this till I go to my grave,” Merchant once said of producing movies. “It regenerates your youth and energy.”

In addition to Ivory, Merchant is survived by sisters Saherbanu Kabadia, Sahida Retiwala, Ruksana Khan and Rashida Bootwala.



Ismail Merchant films

Films produced

* Heights (2004)

* Le Divorce (2003)

* Merci Docteur Rey (2002)

* Refuge (2002)

* The Golden Bowl (2000)

* Cotton Mary (1999)

* A Soldier’s Daughter

Never Cries (1998)

* Side Streets (1998)

* Gaach (1998)

* Surviving Picasso (1996)

* Jefferson in Paris (1995)

* Feast of July (1995)

* Street Musicians

of Bombay (1994)

* The Remains of the Day (1993)

* Howards End (1992)

* The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991)

* Mr. & Mrs. Bridge (1990)

* Slaves of New York (1989)

* The Perfect Murder (1988)

* The Deceivers (1988)

* Sweet Lorraine (1987)

* Maurice (1987)

* My Little Girl (1986)

* A Room with a View (1985)

* The Bostonians (1984)

* Heat and Dust (1983)

* Quartet (1981)

* Jane Austen

in Manhattan (1980)

* The Europeans (1979)

* Roseland (1977)

* Sweet Sounds (1976)

* Autobiography

of a Princess (1975)

* The Wild Party (1975)

* Mahatma and

the Mad Boy (1974)

* Helen, Queen of the

Nautch Girls (1973)

* Savages (1972)

* Bombay Talkie (1970)

* The Guru (1969)

* Shakespeare Wallah (1965)

* The Householder (1963)

Films directed

* The Mystic Masseur (2001)

* Cotton Mary (1999)

* The Proprietor (1996)

* Lumiere et compagnie (1996)

* In Custody (1993)

* Mahatma and

the Mad Boy (1974)

Source: The Internet Movie Database

Los Angeles Times