Ismail Merchant: An Appreciation

There have been many tributes following Ismail Merchant's untimely passing. Some are here and here. From a personal standpoint, while I enjoyed a fair number of Merchant-Ivory films, they weren't necessarily must see events. However, I did appreciate the craft and thought that went into every frame. Most of all, I admired Ismail Merchant for being such an independent maverick, for exploring his Indian sensibilities, and for being able to mount such lavish affairs on peanut budgets. Apparently, he could "get money off a dead porcupine." His early productions (Shakespeare-wallah, Bombay Talkie, The Householder) had Indian themes, yet were free of the Bollywood song-and-dance constraints even when commenting on them (such as in Bombay Talkie). Lacking in the dishum dishum arena, they weren't blockbusters in India and only found a niche audience abroad. Unperturbed, Merchant/Ivory pressed on, achieving their greatest successes much later with several adaptations of Victorian novels. This is what Merchant, in an interview with Salon, had to say of their tough times:

Merchant Ivory went through many years of relative obscurity. Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever think, "We should stop doing this?"

No, not at all. We have gotten some terrible reviews at times but if we depended on the judgment of the studios or critics, we never would have made more than one movie. Let me tell you a small story. I remember when we were trying to make "Heat and Dust." I went to one of the studios and happened to see a report that called it "Eat My Dust." Just imagine! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Merchant's own directorial efforts showed, however, he hadn't lost his fascination with India. The best of those was his first, In Custody, a paean to Urdu as a dying language. The struggles of Nur (played by an alarmingly corpulent Shashi Kapoor), an Urdu poet trying to keep his art alive amidst an increasingly modern and uncaring society might have been a commentary of Merchant's own attempts to find an audience for his efforts.

I had the fortune of hearing him speak at Stanford last year. His account of his early struggles in New York in the late '50s/early '60s and his first meeting with Paul Newman (who finally worked with him a couple of decades later in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) was the stuff of legend and, I daresay, would make a great film in its own right. I met him after his talk and, despite the fact I'd jumped the line, he was gracious enough to answer the only question I could think of at the time. "How is Shashi Kapoor doing?", I blurted. "Oh, he's much thinner now!" he replied with a twinkle. That was Ismail Merchant - a true original, a true gentleman and a true inspiration to desi filmmakers everywhere.

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- June 2, 2005 10:00 PM // Film