‘Ismail Merchant’ (25 December 1936–25 May 2005) was an Indian-born film Producer and Director. He worked for many years in collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions which included Director (and Merchant’s longtime professional and domestic partner) James Ivory as well as Screen-Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.Their films won six Academy Awards.
Merchant succeeded as an independent producer in Hollywood for more than 40 years. His strength lay in funding his projects, particularly in his ability to produce films for several million dollars less than those of his contemporaries.
Merchant met director James Ivory, at a screening, in New York City, of Ivory’s documentary “The Sword and the Flute” in 1959. In May 1961, Merchant and Ivory formed the film production company Merchant Ivory Productions. Merchant and Ivory were long-term life partners. Their professional and romantic partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005.
Their partnership has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest partnership in independent cinema history. Until Merchant’s death in 2005, they produced nearly 40 films, including a number of award winners. Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was the screenwriter for most of their productions.
In 1963, MIP premiered it’s first production,’The Householder’, based upon a novel by Jhabvala (she also wrote the screenplay). This feature became the first Indian-made film to be distributed internationally by a major American studio, Columbia Pictures. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the partnership “hit on a successful formula for studied, slow-moving pieces … Merchant Ivory became known for their attention to period detail and the opulence of their sets”. Their first success in this style was Jhabvala’s adaptation of Henry James’s The Europeans.
In addition to producing, Merchant directed a number of films and two TV features. For TV, he directed a short feature entitled Mahatma and the Mad Boy, and a full-length TV feature, The Courtesans of Bombay made for Britain’s Channel Four. Merchant made his film directorial debut with 1993’s In Custody based on a novel by Anita Desai, and starring Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor.Filmed in Bhopal, India, it won National Awards from the Government of India for Best Production Design and Special Jury award for lead actor Shashi Kapoor.His second directing feature,’The Proprietor’, starred Jeanne Moreau, Sean Young, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Christopher Cazenove and was filmed on location in Paris;France.
Of his partnership with Ivory and Jhabvala, Merchant once commented: “It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory . . . I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!