In the late 1950s, James Ivory visited an art dealer’s shop in San Francisco. Ivory, then a cinema student at University of Southern California, had completed his thesis film on Venetian paintings and was looking to buy some artwork.
He saw a set of Indian miniature paintings at the shop. The paintings intrigued him, and even though the Berkeley-born and Oregon-raised Ivory did not know much about India, he eventually decided to make a short documentary about classical Indian art called The Sword and the Flute (1959). Through a friend, Ivory met New York-based Indian actor Saeed Jaffrey who agreed to do the voiceover for the film.
After a screening of the film at the Indian Consulate in New York City, Jaffrey introduced Ivory to an Indian management student, Ismail Merchant. Merchant was obsessed with popular Indian cinema (actress Nimmi was his family friend in Bombay) and he was keen to make films in India for international audiences.
That chance meeting on the steps of the consulate changed the face of American independent cinema. Ivory and Merchant had a long conversation at a cafe that evening. They soon became close friends, lovers and business partners in a company they named Merchant Ivory Productions. It went on to become one of the most prolific film producing companies in the US that earned 30 Academy Award nominations and won six Oscars.
Ivory himself received four Oscar nominations (including for directing A Room With a View, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day). On Sunday, Ivory won his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Call Me By Your Name. At 89, he is the oldest person to receive an Academy Award.
In his acceptance speech, Ivory remembered Merchant, who died in 2005, as well as the German writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (she passed away in 2013), who was married to an Indian architect and became a vital third member of Merchant Ivory Productions. Jhabvala wrote screenplays for 23 Merchant-Ivory films, starting with their first, the Delhi-based The Householder (1963), which was based on her novel. She also won two Oscars for her adapted screenplays of EM Forster’s A Room With A View and Howard’s End.
During the early years of their collaboration in the 1960s, Jhavbala was in Delhi while Ivory was working out of his home in New York. They would discuss screenplays through international phone calls, although Jhabvala hated talking on the phone. At other times, they would send airmail letters.
The three were so close that after Jhabvala moved to New York with her husband Cyrus, she bought an apartment in the same building on Manhattan’s East Side, where Ivory and Merchant maintained separate homes. The three friends and Jhabvala’s husband would meet for breakfast and dinner every day.
Today, Ivory lives alone in one of the apartments (the apartments belonging to Merchant and Jhabvala were sold off after their deaths), surrounded by memories of his very rich life, In one corner, there is a small shrine to Merchant – a large pencil sketch of the legendary producer and a small framed black and white picture from when he was a teenager in Bombay.
Ivory also maintains a sprawling 19th-century house set on 12 acres of land, which he bought with Merchant in Claverack, a town located in Upstate New York.
Also a vital part of the team were two Indian actors: Shashi Kapoor (he acted in seven films produced by Merchant Ivory Productions) and Madhur Jaffrey, actor and celebrated cook book writer.
“I see it as a group of siblings,” Madhur Jaffrey told me in an interview in 2000, as she talked about her relationship with Merchant and Ivory. “We have all grown up together and our relationship, at least mine with them, has been very sibling-like, with battles and making-up. You have disagreements and you come back and you agree on doing something else. So it is a very loving relationship.”
Before he made The Householder (one of Shashi Kapoor’s earliest films that also starred Leela Naidu and Durga Khote), Ivory made a trip to Calcutta where he called up Satyajit Ray and showed the Bengali filmmaker his short films. Ivory was also keen to watch Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958).
“He arranged for a screening at a Tollygunge studio,” Ivory told me in an interview in 2014. “He sat with me, since it was not subtitled. I thought it was one of the most marvellous movies I had seen.”
The connection Ivory made with Ray also resulted in a professional collaboration. Ray allowed his regular crew members, including cinematographer Subrata Mitra, to work on The Householder. Mitra would eventually shoot other Merchant Ivory films set in India, including Shakespeare Wallah (1965), The Guru (1969) and Bombay Talkie (1970).
When Ivory and Merchant had a rough cut of The Householder, they showed it to Ray and he offered to re-edit it. Ray’s only condition was that he wanted a free rein over the film’s editing process. If Merchant and Ivory did not like Ray’s edit, they could switch to the earlier version of the film.
“So we were in his edit room with Dulal Dutta [Ray’s regular editor],” Ivory said in the 2014 interview. “He would be standing and ever so often he would yell – ‘Cut!’ and I would jump. He was a tall man and incredibly dynamic.”
For The Householder, Ray worked for free. But in 1965, Ray was commissioned to compose the soundtrack of the second Merchant Ivory production Shakespeare Wallah, the story of a travelling British theatre company in India. Ray’s composition for the film was featured in Wes Anderson’s India-based Darjeeling Limited.
In all, Ivory directed six films in India, including the 1983 hit Heat and Dust, based on Jhabvala’s Booker Prize winning novel. Later, Merchant would direct two films in India, In Custody (1994) – featuring one of Shashi Kapoor’s all-time great performances – and Cotton Mary (1999).
But the team eventually moved away from India, working on other period projects, adapting two of Henry James’ works, The Europeans (1979) and The Bostonians (1984), and the adaptations of EM Forster’s novels, including the gay classic Maurice. They had a Paris phase of films – Jefferson in Paris (1995), A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (1998) and The Divorce (2003). Earlier in 1990, Ivory directed Mr and Mrs Bridge – his ultimate American film, based on two novels by Evan S Connell and starring Joanne Woodward and her husband Paul Newman.
It is a rich array of films. Over the last few years, the New York distribution house Cohen Media Group is slowly restoring all the Merchant Ivory works.
In 2005, when Ivory was working on the post-production of The White Countess (with Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave and based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel), the news came that Merchant had suddenly died from complications after a gallbladder surgery. Ivory was devastated, but he had to complete the film.
One year after Merchant passed on, his friends, a huge collection of actors and Ivory gathered at New York City’s Florence Gould Hall to pay tribute to the producer.
“It was a year ago today that Ismail so unexpectedly disappeared,” Ivory said that afternoon, making the first public statement about the loss of his partner of over 40 years. “It has been a rough year to get through but, somehow, we have. He was a big unsinkable vessel, one that takes many smaller boats with it when it goes down. Yet, it hasn’t happened and we are still afloat.”
Ivory added: “When I first knew him, we were young, making our films in India. When he was in a happy mood, he would sing the lyrics of the Mumbai films he grew up on. Not loudly, but under his breath. Later, when life got more serious, he lost that habit, which I missed.”
Ivory would make one final film under the Merchant Ivory banner, The City of Your Final Destination (2009). But that film landed in a lot of legal trouble, including a lawsuit filed by Anthony Hopkins (he had earlier acted in three Merchant Ivory films) for non-payment of his salary.
In 2015, I interviewed Ivory again, when I was working on a biography of Shashi Kapoor. He told me he had last travelled to India in 2006 to visit Merchant’s grave. And he said he could not work in India anymore.
“Without Ismail I couldn’t do it,” Ivory said. “He made everything work out. He was the producer and India was his country. I don’t feel I know India anymore.”