Ismail Merchant, one half of the prolific Merchant-Ivory film-making team, has a knack for persuading the trickiest people to do exactly what he wants. But, asks JOHN WALSH, are the results always worth it?
When Ismail Merchant was still a student at a Bombay University, he conceived a passion to visit the northern province of Kashmir. Disdaining his parents' concern about his venturing so far by himself, he caught a train to Panthankot, from where he would go on by bus to the Kashmiri city of Srinagar. But at Panthankot, he found a sudden landslide blocking the road; there was no possibility of any traffic going north for a week, maybe a month. Any normal, penniless 19-year-old would have abandoned his travel plans about now, turned round and headed for home. Not Merchant. Striking up a conversation with three US businessmen similarly stranded en route to Srinagar, he persuaded them to charter a local light aircraft, and promised to arrange a special discounted fare that would include his company as a fourth passenger, free of charge. They agreed, and Merchant set off to the local airstrip to find a pilot who would play ball. He had never signed up a pilot or chartered a flight before, let alone brokered a discount fare. But how else was he to get where he wanted?
The same galloping cheek has driven his 40-year career in movies, as he has bullied, cajoled and charmed successive generations of funding bodies into investing in Merchant Ivory Productions - that global enterprise that has made hundreds of million dollars, picked up a score of Oscars, and managed to be either a benchmark of classy film-making or an emblem of heritage-industry tat, depending on which school of criticism you believe. But to be driving force behind Shakespeare Wallah, Bombay Talkie, The Europeans, Heat and Dust, A Room With a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day and Jefferson in Paris is no small boast.
Merchant's fame as a super-producer is not due to his eccentricity (as it was with Sam Goldwyn), megalomania (Harvey Weinstein), or toxic excess (Robert Evans), but something more appealing: exuberance. He is legendarily noisy, ebullient, enthusiastic and relentless. He machine-guns nervous backers with unshakeable arguments, he carpet-bombs media types with invitations to this party or that locations.
Watch him working the room at the launch of this sort of memoir, My Passage From India, in a classy Indian restaurant off Piccadilly. At one end of the room, 15 display cauldrons of murgh, makhani and masoor dal are seething, while at the other; a smorgasbord of trendy metropolitans are behaving like extras in a film called The Wild Book Launch. Here is Lord Alli, his hair an explosion of corkscrewy white ringlets, talking to the girl who plays Vicky, Pauline Fowler's errant granddaughter, in East-Enders, while Rupert Gravers (who was in Merchant Ivory's Maurice) pushes past the screenwriter Iain Johnstone and Geordie Greig, the editor of Tatler. Merchant's social acquaintance is both eclectic and enormous, but he does seem genuinely connected to it. He wanders restlessly through the room, determined to meet everyone who was shown up. He is friendly and talkative, a little hesitant when he has not quite got the measure of a stranger.
Meeting him at this flat in a fearfully grand private court in Portman Square ("Like a Calcutta palace, isn't it?), you encounter the same combination of generosity and watchfulness. He makes us orange-pekoe tea and chocolate biscuits, leaving me to wander through his airy rooms, inspecting the Bafta "Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema" awards, the piano, the bronze figurines, the kitschy centerpiece of a huge plaster urn covered in dried yellow roses and topped with fake lily-pads.
Although I began our chat with the most appalling blunder (asking "How did you persuade Helena Boham Carter to get her kit off in The Wings of a Dove?", to which the answer is, sadly, "We didn't make The Wings of a Dove. We did The Golden Bowl"). Merchant lets me off the hook by recalling Greta Scacchi's concern over what her Italian father would think of her appearing in Heat and Dust with nothing on but a mosquito net.
Merchant deploys his charming, high-pitched giggle to great effect - but a little later, you hear him on the telephone, addressing a business associate in the tones of an Elizabethan conspirator ("I could tell by his eyes that he was lying. We must discuss later what we shall do..."), and you realize that this dizzying success has not been achieved without a ruthless streak.
What had he inherited from his father? Merchant answers, as he often does, with a vignette. "My father was in textiles. He imported them to Bombay to Manchester. The bales of poplin for shirts would come in, they'd be opened in the office, the balers would come, take a thousand pieces, go off to market and sell them. One man would distribute the bales, another would record it all, someone would come and do the accounting - and I would watch this operation, and the cash box being opened and closed, every day." And presumably, decided that he wasn't going to be that kind of businessman. Instead, he hustled for job, finding himself working at the Indian Consulate in New York as a delegates' city guide, despite having only been in the city for three days.
What's the secret, I ask, of blagging your way into something like that? "The secret is, you blindly believe in yourself, and decide that anything you want to do will be possible. You tell the man, 'I want this job, I need this job,' and he says, 'Do you know New York City?' And I say, 'Like the back of my hand,' because I can't very well say, 'I have just arrived here.'"
But look, I say, what if the man had asked you where Battery Park is? I'd have said, "Downtown" says Merchant and goes off into peals of laughter.
Merchant was an avid film-goer since the time, aged 13, that he fell in love with an Indian film star called Nimmi, a family friend. At college, he haunted the Metro cinema, saw Gone with the Wind and the extravaganzas of De Mille, and began to organize ambitious fundraising events and awards ceremonies with Indian celebrities. You can see the coalescing of all these elements into a single ambition - to make art-house movies, set in India, for an international audience. Did it mean that he turned his back on the traditional Bollywood song-and-dance confections as being hopelessly provincial?
"No, I loved them. I used to sing all the songs. I went to cafes with my friends and we made the owners play our favorite songs of the 78rpm gramophone. I loved Dilip Kumar, a great actor, the Cary Grant of India. I never turned my back. I was always interested in having Hollywood stars and Bollywood ones together in the cast."
Merchant has always been good at promising to let spirant actors join the stock company of Helenas and Saeeds. He was reported in the press last week as having promised to find a little something for Liz Hurley very soon. "Well, she has a nice personality," he said guardedly. "And if there is a part, and she's right for it, why not?"
We talked about the role of a producer. Merchant is unimpressed by the modern tendency, where "a man does not the absolute minimum and calls himself a producer. A good producer rolls up his sleeves and jumps into everything, finding the locations, even finding the props. If a cup of coffee needs to be made, or a meal, or an actor to be driven somewhere, I'm there. And talking to exhibitors, designing the posters, seeing the promotion is right and the advertising..."
He doesn't advise James Ivory about where to point his camera or how to edit, but he's keen to emphasize that on their first film together, The Householder (1963), it was he who found the book, commissioned the screenplay (from Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the third side of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala troika), chose the actors, and found the location in the roof terrace of a friend of a friend - in other words, the whole mise-en-scene came from him. "As the Producer," he says, "I was ready to raise the money, but I wanted to be in the creative processes from the start."
Merchant-Ivory has run into a few detractors over the years. The critics Gilbert Adair once declared that the whole point and meaning of their middle-period movies were the props - the cutlery, crockery and napery in all stately-home banquets, the rolling grounds, the long white dresses, the bustles and hats - and that nothing else was being communicated. The film vigilante Joe Queenan was commissioned by Movieline to watch the whole Merchant-Ivory canon - all 22 films - in a few weeks. He wrote a savage piece about the experience: "Bombay Talkie is the one filled with a lot of corny music where the Englishwoman ends up in bed with a lecherous adulterer played by Shashi Kapoor, but there's no good sex. Hullabaloo over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures is the one filled with a lot of corny music where an old Englishwoman totally dominates her young companion who ends up in bed with a lecherous adulterer played by Saeed Jaffrey, but there's no good sex. And Heat and Dust is the one filled with a lot of corny music where Greta Scacchi ends up in bed with a lecherous adulterer played by Shashi Kapoor, but there's no good sex. Are we clear?"
I wondered if Merchant got upset by the estimate of the respected critic, David Thomson, who wrote in the New Biographical Dictionary of Film: "Merchant Ivory is Masterpiece Theatre film-making: prestigious, well furnished, accurate, prettily cast - and bland, anonymous and stealthily interchangeable. Can you tell one Ivory-ised classic author from another?"
"I would say it's the very limited imagination of - who is he? Thomson? - of Mr. Thomson, that he can't see beyond certain things. If you take into account the entire canvas of what we've done over 40 years, [...]
One thing that Merchant worships, along with Edward Morgan Forster, is food. He is an accomplished cook, a skill he learned in New York when, unable to afford to schmooze financiers, bankers and actors at expensive restaurants, he cooked for them at his home, trusting that the intimacy thus engendered might later be translated into hard cash.
He wrote a cookbook, Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine, which was published in 1986 and has been in my kitchen, its spine broken in 30 places, ever since. His signature dishes of Rajasthani lamb stew and (his favourite) lemon lentils are sublime. I enjoyed the stories of how he would arrive at the apartment of a famous actress, bearing four plastic bags of ingredients, commandeer her kitchen and knock up a four-course feast in half an hour.
He has pulled off this trick with some very unlike people. Sir Vidia Naipaul, the famous irascible, Trinidad-born Nobel laureate, had never given permission for any of his works to be filmed. But he succumbed when Ismail wanted to make The Mystic Masseur. "He came to this apartment," Merchant chortles, "and I showed him photographs of the locations and cooked mackerel for him. He hates mackerel, but I had brought back a tamarind sauce from Trinidad and cooked that along with ginger and green chillies. He tasted it and said, 'This is just wonderful. What is it?' and I had to confess it was mackerel..." But the film went ahead.
When Raquel Welch agreed to star in The Wild Party, her agents worried about the protocol of expecting "a million-dollar star" to show up at someone's little apartment. Merchant and Ivory rented a mansion in the Hollywood Hills and invited her to dinner (roast lamb with ginger, lemon and mustard sauce), taking the precaution of inviting her co-star, Perry King, along too. "He is the most handsome young man, playing the part of the movie star who is offered a part by this evil producer," said Merchant in his best evil-producer manner. "Raquel met him and said, 'Dammit, he's better looking than I am!'"
And was she an absolute pussycat after that meeting? Merchant's face falls. "Actually, no, she was most difficult during the filming. She tried to fire everybody. There was a scene she thought should be shot in a certain way. James said, 'No, it should be done this way.' She said, 'You're challenging me... that's it boys, I've had it,' and ran off the set. She wanted to fire me, the cameraman, and even James Ivory. I mean, it was our bloody film.
"Eventually, she was brought back because her agent, lawyer and manager told her she'd be sued. Then, when the film came out, Time magazine said, 'Raquel Welch gives the most brilliant performance of her career,' and she became a big supporter. We meet her from time to time at parties and she says, 'Boys - when are you going to have me in your next movie?'"
Lifetime-achievement honours have been showered on Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala in the last couple of years, but they're still working. Most pressing is an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro called The White Countess, which they are going to shoot in China. And Merchant is keen to film a novel called Jacob's Hand, a little-known work jointly written by Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood - both of whom Merchant met in the 1960s, when they were dabbling in mysticism.
It is piquant to imagine the intellectual hippie Huxley, commissionaire at the doors of perception, encountering the practical and money-spinning Merchant. There's a curious mix of the earthy and the aesthetic about the latter. Will he call the second volume of his memoirs The Mystic Merchant?
'My Passage from India' by Ismail Merchant is published by Penguin (£20)