World-renowned filmmaker Ismail Merchant to speak at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts


Image: Ismail MerchantFilmmaker Ismail Merchant, the producer and business brain behind "A Room With a View," "The Remains of the Day" and a host of other acclaimed films, will speak on Sunday, Jan. 26 at 3 p.m. at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. His lecture is part of Open VISIONS Forum, a program of University College.

With director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Mr. Merchant has turned Merchant Ivory Productions into one of the world's leading independent film companies, respected for making high-quality films on remarkably low budgets. Their 32-year collaboration has spawned more than 16 feature films, including several visually stunning literary adaptations.

"We are committed to making civilized films," Mr. Merchant once said of his work, "films that say something about our life and our time."

Mr. Merchant has been saying something about his life and time since he was a young boy. Born Ismail Noor Mohammed Abdul Rehman in 1936, Mr. Merchant was the only son in a family of seven children from Bombay, India. His mother was a homemaker and his father was a middle-class Muslim trader and president of the Bombay branch of the Muslim League.

It was his father's ties to politics that gave young Ismail his first taste of the power of the stage. At just nine years of age, he delivered a passionate speech on the division of India at a political rally that drew 10,000 people and became a turning point in his life. In Robert Emmet Long's book "The Films of Merchant Ivory," he compared his film career to that moment, saying once he started "there was no going back, no stopping."

Mr. Merchant's parents hoped he would become a business professional, so they enrolled him in both Muslim and Jesuit schools to give him the best English schooling offered in Bombay. But his interest in drama was evident in the variety shows he staged when he was in secondary school. He continued to stage shows to pay for some of his education at St. Xavier's College, where he studied political science and literature. In 1958, Mr. Merchant graduated with enough money to pay for travel expenses and his tuition for a master's degree in business administration at New York University.

Outside of classes, Mr. Merchant immersed himself in art and culture, taking in the films of Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini. He was intrigued by the idea that such remarkable films were made outside the studio system.

While a student, Mr. Merchant worked as a messenger for the Indian delegation to the United Nations and as an advertising account executive, jobs that gave him enough contacts to help create his first short film, 1960's "The Creation of Woman." It was well received, so Mr. Merchant - who was low on funds, but high on creativity - decided to leave for Hollywood.

In 1961, he met James Ivory at a screening and, within months, the two christened their own production company. Later that year, they met novelist/screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and an enduring partnership began.

Their first films, including "The Householder" and "Shakespeare Wallah," were not very popular in India, perhaps because they depicted a Western viewpoint. It wasn't until 1979 that their success with "The Europeans" ushered in an era of lush literary adaptions, such as "The Bostonians," "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," and "Howard's End."

While all the films have won wide acclaim, the team's 1986 adaptation of E.M. Forster's "A Room With a View" was a blockbuster, grossing $60 million. Not bad for a film shot on $3 million, considered a paltry sum by Hollywood standards.

Film industry experts credit Mr. Merchant for keeping costs low. The producer "represents the paradox of being intensely and deeply idealistic and intensely and deeply practical," according to Mr. Long's book. It's a tribute to both his persuasive style and his respected talent that he has convinced top stars, including Paul Newman, Anthony Hopkins and Vanessa Redgrave, to agree to relatively low salaries to be in his movies.

Earlier this year, Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory, whose films have won six Academy Awards, were given the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Academy Fellowship at the United Kingdom's main film awards ceremony. Some of the biggest names in the industry - Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg among them - have received this high honor.

In recent years, Mr. Merchant has directed four films, including 2002's "The Mystic Masseur," an adaptation of VS Naipaul's novel. He takes such work very seriously.

"When you're taking Henry James or E.M. Forster or Evan S. Connell, you don't want to muck about with their work," he said. "You want to present it in the most passionate manner there is."

Tickets for Merchant's lecture are $18, $15 for senior citizens. For tickets, call the Quick Center box office at (203) 254-4010 or toll free at 1-877-ARTS-396.

Bookmark and Share

Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on December 15, 2002

Vol. 35, No. 132