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A Florentine Hommage to Ismail Merchant

For a certain niche group of cinephiles ever since the release of a film called "Shakespeare Wallah" in 1965, the "Merchant-Ivory" label has become synonymous with high-class rarified taste in cinema in some way associated with India ("A Passage to India", "Heat and Dust"), or, in the later collaborations of this producer-director team, with ultra refined literary adaptations set in Victorian England such as "The Remains of the Day", and "Howard's end". To be brutally frank, since "Merchant-Ivory" productions were never exactly my cup of tea cinematically speaking, (although I made valiant efforts to sit through a number of their films), I never paid enough attention to discern who did exactly what, whether they were both Indian or half-Indian or what -- and merely assumed that they were in some sense co-directors something like their polar opposites, the Coen brothers in the frozen wastes of Minnesota.

From the fascinating documentary "In Ismail's Custody" (RT 50'), 1994, by Englishman Derrick Santini, which is basically a biopic about Mr. Merchant, much of this cloudiness was cleared up, and in addition I witnessed one of the best documentaries of this type I have ever seen! It turns out that Merchant, who passed away in May 2005 at the age of 68, was indeed fully Indian despite the non-Indian adopted surname, and was the dynamic producer-half of the team, whereas James Ivory, often mistaken for an Englishman because of the Englishness of his films, is actually an American. Moreover, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the regular screenwriting third member of the production team, was born in Germany, though at one point married to an Indian, and all three are portrayed in London's National Portrait Gallery which is normally the preserve of pure Anglo-Saxons! The list of people whose paths intertwined with Merchant's own and who appear in the film bearing various testimonies as to Merchant's dynamism, prowess as a producer, and personal charm, is in itself impressive: actor Anthony Hopkins, director James Ivory, his consort and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (invariably clad in a sari), actress Emma Thompson, Indian star Shashi Kapoor, the noted American film critic Andrew Sarris, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Hollywood tycoon and Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Anita Desai, the author of the novel 'In Custody' which was to become Merchant's only drected film, the charismatically beautiful actress Shabana Azmi who had an important role in the film of 'In Custody', Zakir Hussain, musician and Actor of 'In Custody, Ustad Sultan Khan .... Composer and musician of 'In Custody', and even American hee-haw actress Goldie Hawn, who happened to be attending the London premiere of 'In Custody'. But the star of the film is, of course, Merchant himself whom we see at many stages of his career, and who comes across as a genuine film lover out to make the best films possible and "damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!"

Very handsome and charismatic in his youth -- I kept thinking of the young Leonard Bernstein -- we see Merchant develop into a true champion of the special kind of art film he always promoted. Not many Merchant-Ivory films became really big hits --"Remains of the Day" and "Howards End" being major exceptions -- and some were out-and-out box-office flops, but it is precisely here where the Merchant mystique comes to the fore when he says with evident conviction that "You need to have failures in order to appreciate your successes -- that's what life is about -- success and failure, and you need both". Santini's documentary, without going overboard into the realm of fawning hagiography, certainly captures the essence of one of the most remarkable personalities ever to grace the world of film, whether the type of films he made happen to be your cup of tea, or not. Watching it I felt myself briefly in the presence of a special kind of greatness. The title of this doc, "In Ismail's Custody" is a sort of double-entendre referring both to the one film which Ismail actually directed im 1993, the year before this documentary was made, and also to the fact that Santini literally came under Ismail's custody, working as still photographer on three of Merchant's most ambitious productions; "Howards End", "Remains of the Day", and "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" (not directed by Ivory) based on an Edward Albee play and starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Also on the homage to Merchant agenda was the 1965 "Shakespeare Wallah", which was the first major collaboration between Merchant the Producer and Ivory the Director, and which I have now slept through at least three times. But for me the real eye-opener was "In Custody", the one and only film where Merchant for once took over the reins and actually directed himself. The subject of the film, based on the novel my Anita Desai, is the decline of the Urdu language in India after partition when Urdu became the official language of Pakistan but, as the idiom of the Indian Muslims, began to be looked upon with a baleful eye in India proper.

For the record the plot of "In Custody runs like this: A literary editor asks Deven (Om Puri), a teacher who loves Urdu poetry, to interview a famous Urdu poet, Nur Shahjehanabadi, (Shashi Kapoor) an aging, fumbling,alcoholic, whale of a man not far from death's door. Deven goes to Bhopal from Mirpur to meet the cantankerous Nur, of whom he is in absolute awe. He finds him living with two feuding wives, and constantly visited by sycophants who drink his whisky and eat his food. Deven desperately wants to record Nur for posterity and manages to scrape up the funds to buy an aged tape recorder, to bribe Safiya, the elder wife, to get Nur into a room at a brothel for a week for the recording, and to feed Nur's pals who, whenever they show up, disrupt the recording sessions with their drunken carousing. Moreover, Deven's young technical assistant is an irresponsible deadbeat who feels he is being overworked for a pointless project and keeps messing up the tapes or failing to turn the machine on when the drunken poet finally gets around to reciting from his works. Meanwhile Nur's beautiful second wife, Imtiaz (Shabana Azmi), wants to be taken seriously as a poetess herself, but Dever dismisses her offhandedly while ignoring his own wife and child much as Nur does. In the end, hardly any of the precious recitations by Nur have been preserved as he drinks himself into the grave. In the course of the film, however, much of the melodious Urdu verses recited by Kapoor are actually heard in this boisterous requiem for a dying language. The three principals, Om with his heavily pitted but oh so soulful face, Kapoor with his massive extroverted personality, and Azmi, with her striking beauty, are all memorable as are the numerous supporting actors, particularly a very withered old woman in white whose occasional appearances punctuate the proceedings. Since Urdu was Bombay born Merchant's native language it is clear that he had a special feeling for the subject matter at hand and therefore wanted to do this picture himself. The result is a remarkably moving film which makes one wonder why he didn't do more directing. In fact, based on this one directorial effort I could not escape the feeling that some of the Ivory directed sleeperoos might have been a lot more lively if Jim and Ismail had just switched roles every now and then.

Alex, Firenze, Dec. 17, 2005

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