Ismail Merchant

Ismail Merchant (born Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman; 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.

Ismail Merchant
Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman

(1936-12-25)25 December 1936
Died25 May 2005(2005-05-25) (aged 68)
London, England, UK
Resting placeMumbai, India
  • Producer
  • director
  • screenwriter
Years active1960–2005
Partner(s)James Ivory (1961–2005; Merchant's death)


Born Ismail Noor Muhammad Abdul Rahman (Gujarati: ઈસ્માઈલ નૂરમોહમદ અબ્દુલ રહમાન, Urdu: اسماعیل نور محمد عبد الرحمن) in Bombay (Mumbai) on Christmas Day 1936, he was the son of Hazra (maiden name, Memon) and Noor Mohamed Rehman, a Bombay 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 a speech about partition at a political rally in front of a crowd of 10,000. He met his first mentor in 1949 thanks to family networks. Consequently, at the age of 13 he developed a close friendship with Nimmi, an Indian film actress in her twenties, who introduced him to the studios of Bombay (which was the hub of India's films). It was she who inspired his ambitious rise to stardom.[3]

He studied at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai and passed BA degree of University of Bombay; Mumbai. It was here he developed a love for movies. When he was 22, he moved to the US to study at New York University where he received MBA degree. While in New York, he gave up his family name of Abdul Rehman, for Merchant.[4] He supported himself by working as a messenger for the United Nations in New York&used this opportunity to persuade Indian delegates to fund his film projects.Of this experience, he said, "I was not intimidated by anyone or anything."[2] Immersed in a new world of art and culture, it was here that Merchant discovered the films of Bengali director Satyajit Ray, as well as those of 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 Cannes Film Festival and received an Academy Award nomination.[4]

Merchant Ivory Productions

Merchant met American Movie director James Ivory at a screening, in New York, of Ivory's documentary The Sword and the Flute in 1959. In May 1961, Merchant and Ivory formed film production companyMerchant Ivory Productions. Merchant and Ivory were long-term life partners.[5][6] Their professional and romantic partnership lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant's death in 2005.[5]

Their partnership has a place in Guinness Book of World Records for longest partnership in independent cinema history.[7] 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 tiny period detail and the opulence of their sets".[8] 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 TV features. For TV, he directed a short feature entitled Mahatma and the Mad Boy, and a full-length 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 Jury award for 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, France.

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!"[9]

Cooking and writing

Merchant 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[10] 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.[11]


In 2002 he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the Republic of India.[12] He was also a recipient of The International Center in New York's Award of Excellence.


Merchant died in Westminster,[13] London, UK aged 68, following surgery for abdominal ulcers.[14] He was buried in Bada Kabrestan in Marine Lines, Mumbai, India on 28 May 2005, in keeping with his wish to be buried with his ancestors.






  1. "Ismail Merchant Biography (1936-)". 25 December 1936. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  2. cited in Cheek of the devil
  3. 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. "Ismail Merchant, 1936-2005". Newsweek. 5 June 2005. Retrieved 24 June 2018.
  5. Horn, John (26 May 2005). "Obituaries; Ismail Merchant, 68; Producer of Stylish, Popular Period Dramas". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 July 2008.
  6. "Ismail Merchant : Biography". Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  7. "Film Producer Ismail Merchant Dies". Retrieved 24 June 2018.
  8. "Obituary: Ismail Merchant". The Telegraph. 26 May 2005. Retrieved 17 February 2018.
  9. "Ismail Merchant". The Times. London. 26 May 2005.
  10. "Nonfiction Book Review: Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals: The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters by Ismail Merchant, Author, Asmail Merchant, Author, Madhur Jaffrey, Adapted by Hyperion Books $27 (312p) ISBN 978-0-7868-6015-9". Retrieved 24 June 2018.
  11. "Merchant Ivory: My Passage from India - A Filmaker's Journey from Bombay to Hollywood and Beyond". Retrieved 24 June 2018.
  12. "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 October 2015. Retrieved 21 July 2015.
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 31 August 2009. Retrieved 31 October 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. "Ismail Merchant passes away at 68". 26 May 2005. Retrieved 5 June 2016.

Further reading

  • "Cheek of the devil, charm of an angel: Ismail Merchant, Producer, 1936–2005" (Obituary reprinted from Telegraph, London), in The Sydney Morning Herald, 2005-05-30, p. 41
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