Ismail Merchant, 1936-2005

Ismail Merchant was proud of the fact that "Merchant-Ivory" had become a double-barreled brand name: it evoked the low-budget, high-quality period dramas that his 44-year partnership with American director James Ivory had made famous. The Guinness Book of World Records listed theirs as the longest collaboration in film history; last week that association ended with Merchant's death in London at 68. He will be remembered for their lush and successful adaptations of literary classics by Henry James and E. M. Forster--including "The Europeans," "A Room With a View" and "Howards End"--as well as of Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Remains of the Day." Over the years, Merchant-Ivory made some 50 films, earned 31 Academy Award nominations and won six Oscars.

Born in Mumbai to a middle-class Muslim textile trader and his semiliterate wife, Merchant was the much loved, precocious only son in a family of six daughters. Educated in Islamic and Jesuit schools, he was well versed in the Qur'an (he got up at dawn to pray every day) and English literature. In college he showed an early penchant for his later career by staging plays and innovatively raising funds to produce them. When he came to business school in New York in 1958, he gave up his family name (Abdul Rehman) for the more cosmopolitan Merchant. He quickly discovered the films of seminal Indian director Satyajit Ray--who became his mentor--and of Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini. And he learned to cook, inspired by a lifelong passion for fine food.

After graduating in 1960, Merchant made his first film, a 14-minute short called "The Creation of Woman." With trademark chutzpah, he sent fake press releases to media outlets announcing that a famous Indian producer was coming to Hollywood. Then, since a film must be shown for three days to be considered for an Academy Award, he persuaded an art cinema to show his short alongside a Bergman film. The upshot? "The Creation of Woman" was nominated for an Oscar and sent to the Cannes Film Festival as the official U.S. entry that year. En route to Cannes, Merchant saw James Ivory's documentary "The Sword and the Flute" and was so impressed by Ivory's understanding of India--"something I've never encountered in an American before or since"--that he offered Ivory a partnership to make films in India for Western audiences: Merchant would raise money, hire actors, manage technicians and distribute the films; Ivory would direct.

Next, they co-opted Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-born, British-educated Jew married to an Indian, to adapt her novel "The Householder" for their first film. When Jhabvala fretted that she had never written a script, Merchant reassured her: "That's not a problem. I've never produced a feature film and Jim has never directed one." His optimism and energy carried the day; their agreement was signed on a paper napkin. That was Merchant: he signed contracts fast--within hours, without lawyers. A persuasive financier, he used unorthodox means to raise funds for films that looked opulent but cost, in his words, "peanuts"--tens of millions less than comparable works.

Proud of their group's diversity--an Indian Muslim, an American Protestant and a German Jew--Merchant bound them into a family. They lived in the same Manhattan building, breakfasted together, shared the same country mansion, talked on the phone daily. A dedicated gourmand, Merchant cooked for his entire cast and crew every Friday while shooting. "I love bringing people together," he said. He treated them as extended family, and in return they worked not for the money but, in the words of Hugh Grant, "for the curry."

Like family, they returned often--Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter all made repeat appearances--for the food, but more importantly for the intelligent roles and the convivial company. Now, they'll miss not just Merchant's legendary hospitality but also the charm of a bon vivant who combined old-style civility and good manners with the entrepreneurial spirit of the modern world.