Filmmaker Ismail Merchant, who with partner James Ivory created sumptuous period pieces such as “A Room With a View” and “Howards End,” died Wednesday in London. He was 68.
The Mumbai-born producer had been unwell for some time and recently underwent surgery for abdominal ulcers.
Merchant and American director Ivory made some 40 films together and won six Oscars since forming their enduring partnership in 1961 with German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.
Known as a driven businessman who paid close attention to marketing and publicity, Merchant was also renowned for his cost-effective approach to production.
“With us, the conception comes with the screenplay, and then we all do all things,” Merchant once told Variety. “Everything is a part of Merchant Ivory: casting, hiring the crew, locations, how much we can spend — everything. We are all involved. It is one of the reasons we have been as successful as we have.”
The bon vivant and expert chef took advantage of the team’s frequent shoots in France and Italy to publish several books devoted to travel and recipes as well as two Indian cookbooks. He could be seen at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival dishing out Indian food at the head of the buffet line for guests at the “Golden Bowl” party.
Merchant first traveled to the U.S. to study business at NYU. After being impressed with one of Ivory’s docus, he asked the helmer out for coffee in 1961. Their first film together, “The Householder,” was based on a novel by Prawer Jhabvala.
Their early films like “Shakespeare-Wallah” and “Bombay Talkie” explored culture clashes in India. In 1979 they made the first of their trademark historical dramas with an adaptation of Henry James’ “The Europeans,” followed by “Quartet,” “Heat and Dust” and another James adaptation, “The Bostonians.”
“Room With a View,” adapted from E.M. Forster, won three Oscars and was nommed for best picture and director. After another Forster period piece, “Maurice,” and a disappointing adaptation of Tama Janowitz’s “Slaves of New York,” the team bounced back in 1992 with “Howards End,” a lively rendering of Forster’s novel, which won three Oscars as well as picture and director noms.
This was followed by Oscar-nommed literary adaptation “Remains of the Day,” “Jefferson in Paris” and “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.”
More recent films such as “Le Divorce,” starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, and “The Golden Bowl” didn’t garner as much attention, however.
In addition to his long producing career, Merchant directed several films, including “Cotton Mary,” “The Proprietor” and “The Mystic Masseur.”
He was planning to direct on “The Goddess,” a controversial musical about the Hindu mother goddess, Shakti, which would star a singing, dancing Tina Turner. In November, Sony Pictures Classics will release “The White Countess,” an Ivory-helmed period drama starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson.
“Ismail Merchant was one of the best independent producers in the history of the movies. He will remain always our hero both personally and professionally,” said Sony Pictures Classics toppers Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom.