Bazaar dealer's start to life in a bizarre trade

My Passage from India
July 4, 2003

This prettily packaged small book should be taken with a large pinch of salt. And perhaps one should not expect anything else from the memoirs of a movie producer, especially someone such as Ismail Merchant, who has had to hustle and juggle more than most to make movies.

Merchant-Ivory Productions was formed in New York in 1961 as a partnership between Merchant as producer and James Ivory as director. In the 1980s and 1990s, they created several well-made and very successful period films based on western literature, such as A Room with a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day. But their earlier work was almost all set in India (culminating in Heat and Dust ) - and it is on these Indian films that the book concentrates, capitalising, as any good producer should, on the recent surge of interest in India and "Bollywood" cinema, especially in the US.

The first Merchant-Ivory film, The Householder, starred the young Shashi Kapoor with a script by the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose story it was. She would go on to write most of Merchant-Ivory's subsequent scripts and become the third member of a productive trio. However, when shooting was completed, Ivory and Merchant were dissatisfied with their edit and requested the great Satyajit Ray to recut it. "In just three days Ray worked on the film, giving it a flashback framework that vastly improved our own cut. In addition, he composed some of the music, and supervised the recording. All of this was done by Ray in a spirit of generosity and friendship." In other words, Ray gave Ivory and Merchant their first break.

Throughout the struggling partnership's first decade and later, Ray helped them many times, as a keenly respectful Merchant is happy to acknowledge. Thus Ray recommended his gifted cinematographer Subrata Mitra to Merchant-Ivory; he got their lead actor Utpal Dutta released from a Calcutta jail; and he composed the evocative score for Shakespeare Wallah.

As Ivory wrote on the record sleeve of the film's soundtrack, "Ray, and Ray alone, was fitted to compose music for a film that is such a mingling of worlds - the Anglo-Indian world, the Victorian British world, the modern Bombay film industry, the theatre of Shakespeare." By general agreement, the music is a sine qua non of that quirky film. Yet Merchant has nothing at all to say about it except that Ray "very generously" composed it in only eight days. He does not even mention - in a book that mentions money on every other page - that Ray composed the score without charging any fee.

These omissions are typical. In the episodes of which I have personal knowledge, for example Merchant's films as director of novels by Anita Desai and V. S. Naipaul, the account is slanted to show the author in the best light. Perhaps this would be more appealing if the egotism was tempered by artistic judgement like Ivory's or a lively literary style. But with the exception of a handful of enjoyable anecdotes, mainly about maharajas, the book is shallow and predictable about Indian culture and unrevealing about film-making. Ivory's own charming and original book, Autobiography of a Princess (1975), is far superior about India, while John Pym's book on Merchant-Ivory, The Wandering Company (1983), offers solid insight into the production process. What emerges most clearly is Merchant's love of - and exceptional skill in - wheeling and dealing. It looks as if a wry Ray was spot on when he privately said of Merchant in the late 1980s, referring to the religious Ismailis: "He is more of a merchant than an Ismail."

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The THES, is the author of Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye.

My Passage from India: A Filmmaker's Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond

Author - Ismail Merchant
ISBN - 0 670 03163 1
Publisher - Viking
Price - £20.00
Pages - 149

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