The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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My Passage from India By Ismail Merchant, Roli, $ 35

“Charming” is the word that comes to mind about Ismail Merchant and his films. My Passage from India lives up to the reputation of the man. Merchant’s autobiographical account speaks with the same candour, humour and zest as its author.

Indian audiences may not readily associate the products of Merchant Ivory Productions with the “crossover film” genre, in the same way as they do Bend it Like Beckham or Monsoon Wedding (though neither of these are “Indian” either, except in theme). But Ismail Merchant, born and brought up in Mumbai, who bulldozed his way into an utterly alien land (New York) pursuing a single-minded dream (filmmaking), is surely one of the pioneers of this genre, making a mark for himself long before India became saleable.

Life in Mumbai was good for Merchant. The only son of a large family, as a boy and young man, Merchant was given freedom to explore. This early freedom is what perhaps fuelled his fearless attitude towards filmmaking.

Merchant Ivory Productions shot to international fame with period pieces adapted from literature — A Room with a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day, and that is what most contemporary audiences are likely to remember. But the Indo-British partnership of 40 years also produced films like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah and Bombay Talkie, consistently casting the likes of Shashi Kapoor and wife Jennifer Kendal, Saeed and Madhur Jaffrey, Zohra Sehgal and even Aparna Sen. Satyajit Ray scored the music for Shakespeare Wallah, even encouraging Merchant, then a mere greenhorn, to go for the international festival circuit.

A large number of photographs, both black-and-white and colour, liven up this book. The final snapshot of Merchant with director James Ivory and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala captures a touching moment between the three collaborators. Merchant’s brushes with dignitaries of the film, political and literary worlds are well documented through these. From childhood to the present day, he has been captured alongside the likes of Jinnah, Aldous Huxley, Nehru, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ivory, Vivien Leigh, Queen Elizabeth, Goldie Hawn, seen receiving the Padma Bhusan. Some remarkable stills from films and production shots make for attractive visuals.

Though Merchant and his films may not generate the kind of hype that has become customary for any international film with an Indian connection, this producer-turned-director has not let this — or the perennial lack of funding — stop him from experimenting with the medium. He and his partners have moved from project to project, both feature and documentary, that have only one thing in common — lack of financial backing.

This was only possible, according to Merchant’s account, because he depended on an extended filmmaking family that included the Kapoor clan, the Jaffreys, friends of Ivory and Jhabvala. The producer did not hesitate to don any hat necessary — actor, chauffeur, chef — for the greater good. If My Passage to India is to be trusted entirely, it were Merchant’s enthusiasm, and legendary powers of persuasion (which apparently scared even a possessive V.S. Naipaul into handing over the rights of The Mystic Masseur), that made 40 films possible.

Merchant does not dwell too long on the details of filmmaking. Nor does he delve into landmark partnerships with James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This brief narrative captures the man — frenzied, passionate and utterly dedicated — who rose from oblivion to live the dream of a 14-year-old besotted with the screen star Nimmi. His magic stems from this eager, even adolescent, infatuation which he continues to nurture for filmmaking.

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