Starting with his childhood infatuation with Bollywood through his friendship with yesteryear star Nimmi, Ismail Merchant takes us on a journey from a life of mango eating, monsoons and movies to Manhattan, masala and more movies in “My Passage From India.” His style of writing is easy and peppered with humorous anecdotes, such as when a bureaucrat refuses to see the filmmaker because he doesn’t want to “meet an ivory merchant.” It is because of this easy writing style that the reader wants more: More details about his life (including his personal life, there isn’t even a mention of a significant other) and more about the difficulties or successes he has had. The slender, lavishly illustrated volume doesn’t offer a wealth of personal details, but it ably transports the reader to exotic India.
Merchant and the eponymous production company he and James Ivory started have been around long enough to remember the West’s earlier love affair with all things India in the 60’s. Riding that wave, Merchant-Ivory Productions made such films as “The Guru” and “Shakespeare-Wallah,” which, while flops at the time gained cult status with the invention of VCRs. But from these beginnings came the Oscar-winning films like “Howards End” and “Remains of the Day.”
His college years obviously laid the foundation for his career as a film producer. He talks of how he learned to invite talent and celebs to attend functions and fund-raisers while at St. Xavier’s College in Bombay. From there he segued to New York University and again used his resourcefulness to get a job with the Indian consulate where he was able to meet movers and shakers.
At the interview for the job soon after he arrived in the U.S., Merchant recounts how he was asked if he was familiar with New York. ” ‘Oh yes,’ I replied. ‘I know New York very well.’ The job paid $90 a week, part time. There was no other answer I could have given.”
His meeting with Ivory is amusing as he gives his version of their first meeting and adds Ivory’s very different recollections. Similarly, his first meeting with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who went on to write the screenplay for many Merchant Ivory films draws a chuckle.
“Ruth may have suspected nothing would come of this association, but her husband, Jhab, was certain that we were fly-by-night rogues. He warned Ruth not to get involved with us — that we would bring no joy to her life.”
Quite a few people Merchant met in his producing career seem to have been wary of him, including Ivory’s father from whom they borrowed money. (They borrowed money from Merchant’s father, too, as well as sundry others including the stars of their movies, but that’s the lot of the indie producer.)
Maybe it’s his personality, but he does skim through some incidents such as the difficulties he had filming in India (where the red tape is notorious), mentions in passing about the problems of getting paid for some films or the time when the company nearly went under during the filming of “The Verdict” when financing didn’t come through.
Although he mentions asking his parents for money and a few details about his family, they are not mentioned again until the end when suddenly he says in passing that they died some years previously.
The book answers the question of what exactly a producer does (hustle for funds, talent, exhib space and more funds) though it leaves you wanting more.
More details on this journey of Merchant’s and certainly more information on his personal life –of which there is very little mention other than the fact that he likes to cook and frequently cooked for the people on the sets of movies he was working on. Perhaps that’s a sequel.