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My Passage from India: A Filmaker’s Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond
Ismail Merchant
New York: Viking Studio (Penguin Putnam), 2002.
US $35.00, 149 pages, ISBN 0-670-03163-1

Millard Dunn
Indiana University Southeast

This book is what United States readers popularly call a “Coffee Table Book.” Generally this means a beautifully illustrated book printed on slick paper that one would leave on his or her coffee table for guests to browse through while they are waiting for coffee or drinks to be served. Frequently the host does not expect the guests to actually read the book. That would be a mistake with this book.

In this lively and informal autobiography, Ismail Merchant offers us his film career as he would like the general audience of film lovers to understand it. The book is filled with personal anecdotes, beginning with:

[T]he exact moment when I knew that I wanted to spend my life in the world of movies. I was thirteen years old and had been invited by Nimmi, one of the upcoming stars in the Bombay film industry to accompany her to the premiere of her first film, Barsaat. As we drove toward the cinema in her green Cadillac convertible—quite an impressive car in India at that time—a shower of marigolds began to rain down on us. I looked up, and it seemed as though the marigolds were dropping from the night sky—thousands of golden flowers gently falling around us. [1]

This story is characteristic of the stories Merchant tells throughout the book: passionate, full of sensuous detail, personal. It feels as if he were an old friend, telling stories after dinner. And how did a thirteen-year-old boy happen to get an invitation from a rising movie star to accompany her to the opening of a film? He tells us in the next paragraph: “Nimmi’s family had a close friendship with my family.” Overleaf, there is a full-page photograph of Nimmi as she must have looked then: beautiful, with dark sultry eyes half closed, full lips, and her face framed in incredible waves of black hair. Two pages later there is a photograph of an older Nimmi in profile facing a beaming Jeanne Moreau and behind the two of them an even more beaming Ismail Merchant, who has just introduced them. Here is a man who loves his work.

Much of what is in this book can be found in Robert Emmet Long’s The Films of Merchant Ivory, and that book, unlike Merchant’s own, does contain a Filmography and an Index. Why, then, would one want to own My Passage from India? Because in Long’s book all the stories, even those based on his interviews with Merchant, are second hand, whereas here Ismail Merchant’s extraordinary personality informs every page. To his friends, Ismail Merchant is known for his energy, his high spirits, and his quick temper. He does not hide even his famous temper in My Passage from India, but he does not dwell on it. And his energy and high spirits are there throughout the book.

He does dwell on his knack for getting people to contribute to a project that he believes in, to contribute money, or time and effort, or both. He seems to have had this knack from his childhood. And it has served him well over the years, both as a film producer and, surprisingly, as a cook.

To date, Ismail Merchant’s best selling book is a cookbook. And yet he claims that he never really studied cooking and does not rely on recipes. He describes his first experience:

The only experience I ever had with cooking was at a school picnic while I was at high school in Bombay, and even then my role was that of delegator rather than chef. The class was often taken on field trips, and on one occasion I suggested that instead of eating at a restaurant as we usually did, we should prepare our own meal, rather like a picnic. Because this had been my idea, I became the organizer, sending boys off to the market to buy meat and vegetables and rice, and other boys to borrow a cauldron and pots from a restaurant. Others had to find wood and make a fire, or collect banana leaves that we used as plates. It was rather like being a film producer: assigning people to various tasks and coordinating the whole affair. When all the food was bubbling away in the pots, I would go from one to the other giving a stir, or adding some spice, until the food was ready to be dished up. The professor who had accompanied the class was very much impressed with the result—for which I took all the credit. [32]

And when he gets into the business of producing movies, he begins to cook for potential clients and investors:

[C]ooking became a useful tool when I entertained financiers, bankers, actors and all the other people essential to making a film. Producers usually wine and dine such people at the finest—and most expensive—restaurants. This producer cooked for them, and I’m sure the novelty of the arrangement played a part in motivating some to agree to my schemes for getting films done. [32]

But if he does not follow recipes when he cooks, how could he write a cookbook? Through his capacity for making friends, including Dick Robbins, who in the mid 1980s persuaded him to share his cooking skills with the world:

I had established quite a reputation for cooking, and friends were always asking for my recipes. The problem was that I never followed recipes or cataloged my own. I don’t think I have ever weighed or measured or counted an ingredient in my life. So Dick undertook to follow me around—Boswell to my Johnson—and record all my activities in the kitchen. Whenever I grabbed a handful of one ingredient or another, Dick would remove it from my fist, carefully weigh it and record it for the book. [121]

Merchant takes us through his first experiences in Hollywood, and his meeting with James Ivory in April, 1961, that led to the formation of Merchant-Ivory Productions. In fact, the two partners tell different versions of that meeting. Merchant: “I remember listening attentively to Jim, an attractive, aquiline-featured man, as he talked about his film. He is a quiet, unassuming person, and he needed gently prodding to volunteer information about himself and his work” [40]. Ivory, as Merchant recalls his version: “Jim . . . insists that as soon as we arrived at the coffeehouse, I left him and went to make phone calls, and then spent the whole evening running between our table and the phone booth to call financiers and other important people” [40].

The third major player on the Merchant-Ivory team, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, joined up—reluctantly, according to Merchant—when the two partners met with her in order to persuade her to sell them the rights to her novel, The Householder. Her husband was convinced that these two were “fly-by-night rogues” [45], but she agreed to let them have the rights to The Householder. The rest of the story characterizes the Merchant-Ivory approach to making films: “Jim suggested that Ruth should write the screenplay, but she told us that she had never written a screenplay. That was not a problem. I had never produced a feature film, and Jim had never directed one. To our astonishment, she produced the screenplay in something like ten days” [44]. The rest, as they say, is history.

According to Merchant, “The burden of raising funds for a film and then putting the whole package together is so enormous and so draining that I need to be overwhelmed with passion for it before I can begin to persuade financiers and actors to participate in the piece, or undertake the sacrifices and risks it might require” [98]. But as filmgoers know, this passion has given us some of the finest films made in the 1980s and 1990s. Merchant-Ivory’s first big money maker was A Room With A View (1986). They have had other successes, and many films that did not fare so well with critics or at the box office. Merchant’s response to failure is characteristic: “The film [The Guru, 1969] had many fine qualities, but it just didn’t work. After all we had been through, it was a disappointment, but there are no prizes for effort in filmmaking. A film either works or it doesn’t” [71].

The first Merchant-Ivory film was The Householder, from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novel. According to Ismail Merchant, “The principles that we established then were the ones we would follow for the rest of our working lives: quality material, the finest actors, authentic locations and lots of hard work. We have never deviated from this philosophy” [57]. And we are all beneficiaries of it.

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