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Ismail Merchant (25 December 193625 May 2005) was an Indianmarker-born film producer, best known for the results of his famously long collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions which included director (and Merchant's longtime romantic partner) James Ivory as well as screenwriter 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.


Born Ismail Noormohamed Abdul Rehman in Mumbaimarker, he was the son of Hazra Memon and Noormohamed Haji Abdul Rehman, a Mumbai Memon textile dealer. He grew up bilingual in Gujarati and Urdu, and learned Arabic and English at school. When he was 11, he and his family were caught up in the 1947 partitioning of Indiamarker. His father was president of the Muslim League, and refused to move to Pakistanmarker. Merchant later said that he carried memories of the "butchery and riots" into adulthood.

He studied at St. Xavier's College, Bombaymarker [88182] and it was here that he developed his love of film.

When he was 22, he traveled to the United Statesmarker to study at New York Universitymarker, where he earned an MBA. He supported himself by working as a messenger for the United Nations and used this opportunity to persuade Indian delegates to fund his film projects. He said of this experience that "I was not intimidated by anyone or anything".

In 1961, he made a short film, The Creation of Woman. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festivalmarker and also received an Academy Award nomination.

Merchant Ivory Productions

In 1961, Merchant and director James Ivory formed the film production company Merchant Ivory Productions. Merchant was also Ivory's long-term life partner. Their professional and romantic partnership lasted from the early 1960s 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 its 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. They won Oscars for A Room with a View and Howards Endmarker.

In addition to producing, Merchant directed a number of films and two television features. For television, he directed a short feature entitled Mahatma and the Mad Boy, and a full-length television 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 Bhopalmarker, India, it went on to win National Awards from the Government of India for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Costume and Best Production Design. His second directing feature, "The Proprietor," starred Jeanne Moreau, Sean Young, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Christopher Cazenove and was filmed on location in Parismarker.

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!" [88183].

Cooking and writing

Merchant was also well known for his "lavish private parties". He was fond of cooking, and he wrote several books on the art including Ismail Merchant’s Indian Cuisine; Ismail Merchant’s Florence; Ismail Merchant’s Passionate Meals and Ismail Merchant’s Paris: Filming and Feasting in France. He also wrote books on film-making, including a book about the making of the film The Deceivers in 1988 called Hullabaloo in Old Jeypur, and another about the making of The Proprietor called Once Upon a Time . . . The Proprietor. His last book was entitled, My Passage From India: A Filmmaker’s Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond.


In 2002, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan.He was also a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.


Merchant died in Westminstermarker, Londonmarker, aged 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcer[88184].

He was buried in the Bada Kabrestan in Marine Linesmarker, Mumbaimarker, on 28 May 2005, in keeping with his wish to be laid to rest with his ancestors.




External links


  1. Cheek of the devil
  2. cited in Cheek of the devil
  3. Deaths England and Wales 1984-2006


  • "Cheek of the devil, charm of an angel: Ismail Merchant, Producer, 1936-2005" (Obituary reprinted from Telegraph, London), in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2005-05-30, p. 41

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