Passage from India: A Filmaker’s Journey from Bombay to Hollywood
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:
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:
And when he gets into the business of producing movies, he begins to cook for potential clients and investors:
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:
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” . 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” .
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” , 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” . 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” . 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” .
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” . And we are all beneficiaries