Ismail Merchant

Ismail Merchant
Born Ismail Noormuhammad Abdul Rahman
(1936-12-25)25 December 1936
Bombay, Bombay Presidency, British India (now Maharashtra, India)
Died 25 May 2005(2005-05-25) (aged 68)
London, England
Resting place Marine Lines, Mumbai, India
Citizenship United Kingdom
Occupation Producer, director, actor, and screenwriter
Years active 1960–2005

Ismail Merchant (25 December 1936 – 25 May 2005) was an Indian-born film producer and director. He worked for many years in collaboration with Merchant Ivory Productions which included director (and Merchant's longtime professional and domestic partner) James Ivory as well as screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Their films won six Academy Awards.

Merchant succeeded as an independent producer in Hollywood for more than 40 years. His strength lay in funding his projects, particularly in his ability to produce films for several million dollars less than those of his contemporaries.


Born Ismail Noormuhammad Abdul Rahman (Gujarati: ઈસ્માઈલ નૂરમોહમદ અબ્દુલ રહમાન, Urdu: اسماعیل نور محمد عبد الرحمن,) in Bombay, he was the son of Hazra (maiden name, Memon) and Noormohamed Haji Abdul Rehman, a Mumbai textile dealer.[1] He grew up bilingual in Gujarati and Urdu, and learned Arabic and English at school. When he was 11, he and his family were caught up in the 1947 partitioning of India. His father was president of the Muslim League, and refused to move to Pakistan. Merchant later said that he carried memories of the "butchery and riots" into adulthood.[2]

As a child at the age of 9, he delivered an emotionally riveting speech about partition, held at a political rally in front of a crowd of 10,000 people, inspiring the entire community. He met his first mentor in 1949 thanks to family networks and consequently aged 13, he developed a close friendship with Nimmi, an Indian film actress in her twenties, who introduced him to the glamorous studios of Bombay, which was the hub of India's film industry. It was she who inspired his ambitious rise to stardom.[3]

He studied higher education at St. Xavier's College, Bombay and it was here that he developed his love for film.

When he was 22, he traveled to the United States to study at New York University, where he earned an MBA. He supported himself by working as a messenger for the United Nations and used this opportunity to persuade Indian delegates to fund his film projects. He said of this experience "I was not intimidated by anyone or anything".[2] Immersed in the new world of art and culture, it was here that Merchant discovered the films of Bengali director, Satyajit Ray, as well as those by European artists such as Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio De Sica, and Federico Fellini.[3]

In 1961, he made a short film, The Creation of Woman. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and also received an Academy Award nomination.

Merchant Ivory Productions

Merchant met director James Ivory, at a screening, in New York City, of Ivory's documentary "The Sword and the Flute" in 1959. In May 1961, Merchant and Ivory formed the film production company Merchant Ivory Productions. Merchant and Ivory were long-term life partners.[4][5] Their professional and romantic partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant's death in 2005.[4]

Their partnership has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest partnership in independent cinema history. Until Merchant's death in 2005, they produced nearly 40 films, including a number of award winners. Novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was the screenwriter for most of their productions.

In 1963, MIP premiered its first production, The Householder, based upon a novel by Jhabvala (she also wrote the screenplay). This feature became the first Indian-made film to be distributed internationally by a major American studio, Columbia Pictures. However, it wasn't until the 1970s that the partnership "hit on a successful formula for studied, slow-moving pieces ... Merchant Ivory became known for their attention to period detail and the opulence of their sets". Their first success in this style was Jhabvala's adaptation of Henry James's The Europeans.

In addition to producing, Merchant directed a number of films and two television features. For television, he directed a short feature entitled Mahatma and the Mad Boy, and a full-length television feature, The Courtesans of Bombay made for Britain's Channel Four. Merchant made his film directorial debut with 1993's In Custody based on a novel by Anita Desai, and starring Bollywood actor Shashi Kapoor. Filmed in Bhopal, India, it won National Awards from the Government of India for Best Production Design and special award for the lead actor Shashi Kapoor. His second directing feature, The Proprietor, starred Jeanne Moreau, Sean Young, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Christopher Cazenove and was filmed on location in Paris.

Of his partnership with Ivory and Jhabvala, Merchant once commented: "It is a strange marriage we have at Merchant Ivory . . . I am an Indian Muslim, Ruth is a German Jew, and Jim is a Protestant American. Someone once described us as a three-headed god. Maybe they should have called us a three-headed monster!"[6]

Cooking and writing

Merchant was also well known for his "lavish private parties". He was fond of cooking, and he wrote several books on the art including Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine; Ismail Merchant's Florence; Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals and Ismail Merchant's Paris: Filming and Feasting in France. He also wrote books on film-making, including a book about the making of the film The Deceivers in 1988 called Hullabaloo in Old Jeypur, and another about the making of The Proprietor called Once Upon a Time . . . The Proprietor. His last book was entitled, My Passage From India: A Filmmaker's Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond.


In 2002, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan.[7] He was also a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.


Merchant died in Westminster,[8] London, aged 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers.[9]

He was buried in the Bada Kabrestan in Marine Lines, Mumbai, on 28 May 2005, in keeping with his wish to be buried with his ancestors.





  1. "Ismail Merchant Biography (1936-)". 1936-12-25. Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  2. 1 2 cited in Cheek of the devil
  3. 1 2 Hirahara, Naomi (2003). Distinguished Asian American business leaders (1. publ. ed.). Westport, Conn. [u.a.]: Greenwood Press. p. 135. ISBN 1573563447. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  4. 1 2 Horn, John (26 May 2005). "Obituaries; Ismail Merchant, 68; Producer of Stylish, Popular Period Dramas". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 July 2008.
  5. "Ismail Merchant : Biography". Retrieved 2016-06-05.
  6. "Ismail Merchant". The Times. London. 26 May 2005.
  7. "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  8. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 31 August 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  9. "Ismail Merchant passes away at 68". 2005-05-26. Retrieved 2016-06-05.

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