Sitting down to a chat with Ismail Merchant is rather
like having a friendly neighbor over for coffee and a sandwich.
Though he’s one half of Merchant Ivory Films, a company associated
with some of the most literate, laced-up, quality cinema of the
last 20 years, Mr. Merchant does not preach from the pulpit. The
producer of Howard’s End (1992) and A Room With A View (1986) is easygoing and relaxed. He exudes an infectious sort of
enthusiasm which, you might surmise, has at least a bit to do with
his talent for survival in the often turbulent and mercurial waters
of independent film production. That, and the fact that Ismail Merchant,
‘renowned producer,’ has gone on to reinvent himself as Ismail Merchant,
‘film director.’ Starting with In Custody (1993), Merchant
has directed The Proprietor (1996), Cotton Mary (1999)
and his current release, The Mystic Masseur, all for the
company he started with director James Ivory. Caryl Phillips, who
adapted Mystic Masseur from the novel by V.S. Nipul, describes
Merchant Ivory’s adventurous philosophy: ‘.if you want something
badly enough then you simply hoist your sail and steer a course
Mystic Masseur is the story of Ganesh, a man
who rises to fame and fortune by turns as writer, spiritual healer
and populist politician. It is perhaps Merchant’s best fit to date,
giving the director the opportunity to bring audiences a character
who shares his own seemingly boundless energy, to say nothing of
his talent for reinventing and redefining himself on his own terms.
Set in Trinidad in the 1940s and ’50s, in what was by then a large
and mostly rural community of Indian immigrants, the film offers
a colorful and often tender glimpse of a time and place, and a way
of life rarely seen and certainly little known to most outsiders.
“The language of cinema,” Merchant offers, “is not indigenous to
one particular place. If you have an emotional language that you
can share with people, it will cross boundaries.”
Phillip Williams (MM): What attracted you
to this story?
Ismail Merchant (IM): The main character, Ganesh.
It’s a story about a man who goes from humble beginnings to becoming
a successful man-a writer of renown. And the fun of it; the elements
of comedy. When I read the novel, I laughed out loud. It was so
wonderful, so enchanting. Very rarely do you come across something
MM: This is the first film of a V.S. Nipul
novel. Was it much of a task to convince him to let you adapt the
IM: I spent about two years dealing with his
agents, and I was not getting anywhere so I wrote him a letter directly.
He replied and said ‘okay, you can do it.’ I had actually asked
if I could come and show him In Custody and tell him personally
of my passion for his book but he wrote back asking me not to come-that
he was aware of my powers of persuasion-and just to go ahead and
do the adaptation.
MM: Do you think that this story is something
that could only take place in a frontier community? The way your
lead character in a sense is able to invent himself?
IM: Reinvention is something that we all have
in us. The imagination of a man, of a human being, is so rich that
you can reinvent yourself in certain situations. Ganesh is one of
those people who is able to do that.
MM: What made you direct this one yourself
as opposed to James Ivory?
IM: When I was reading the novel I told Jim
that I wanted to direct it. It was so funny and so charming and
has something to say about the Indian community. I thought I could
make a good film of it. And Jim said, ‘Why not. Go ahead.’ It was
my feeling for the material. Any director in the world-whether you
are Japanese or Indian, or whatever-has to feel strongly about the
material and identify with it.
MM: Is it frustrating for James when his
producer goes off to direct?
IM: Yes, there’s a big battle (laughs.)
MM: So he has to wait?
IM: He has to wait, and I have to wait to for
him to complete a film. It’s just automatic. If you feel strongly,
your partner is going to understand. So The Golden Bowl was finished and I said, ‘Now I’m going to do this. He was writing
a new project anyway, so I said, ‘Why not put the company to better
MM: Do you take away anything from working
with James Ivory that you can apply to your own work as a director?
IM: Absolutely. You learn a lot from a talented
director, as Jim is. I see him observe things and do things in a
certain way; how much of a painstaking process directing is, with
the research and so forth. When you see a film you must feel that
you have actually gone through something real-that you are there,
that you have gone through an experience-and Jim’ s films have that.
In my own way, I want people to feel that they have gone through
this process, that they have become a character in that particular
journey. I think that is very important. If you go back to our film, Shakespeare Walla (1965), about the English traveling company
of actors, if you look at the feel and texture of the film, it’s
as though you are a part of the traveling company in India.
MM: I assume you are mentoring your producer
to some degree, using the existing relationships you have fostered
over the years to create a high quality, low budget film.
IM: It’s like growing up with certain things
as a child and by the time you are a man you have mastered them.
For me, that is producing; I have mastered that. You have what you
call Line Producers and you do automatically guide them in
certain ways to make the film is as rich as possible with a limited
budget. We spent $2.6 million making this film but it looks as if
we spent $15 million. And that comes from our approach to things.
For example, we never stayed in hotels in Trinidad. We got apartments
together and everyone was happy. That’s the way we have always worked.
On our very first film, The Householder (1961) we were shooting
in New Delhi and living in Old Delhi together-the cameraman, me,
the electricians, soundman, the actors-all together in one house;
and we had a cook, who cooked for us. That philosophy has stayed
MM: A budget of $2.6 million is so small.
What other areas are you saving money in? Or, where do you think
film companies typically waste money?
IM: First of all, first-class flying and getting
huge amounts of salaries, big houses and hotels. We have a Hilton
in Trinidad-a luxury, four star hotel-and people [from our crew]
went there for a drink and then came back, happy to stay with us.
The larger companies would put people up in hotels; there is no
personal touch to that. You are hired as a person and then let go
after the film is shot. With us it’s not so. A cameraman, production
designer or production assistant will appear three years later on
another one of our shows, so there is an ongoing commitment. Others
don’t have that ongoing commitment. That’s a waste. People are less
likely to be concerned with saving money for the company without
personal commitment of that kind.
MM: How has your distribution strategy evolved
with more world markets opening up? Is it becoming easier to get
a film made and seen?
IM: Luckily, with a Merchant Ivory Film, because
we have been working over the years and have become a brand name,
there is a market. If we were to stop making films for 10 years
and then try to pick up the ball again, it would be difficult. But
as we continue to work every year or two, our name is still a factor
in bringing in audiences. But you are right. At this particular
juncture in cinema-with the kind of movies that are being made-it is difficult to get proper distribution; to get a buyer to
really believe in your work.
MM: If you were starting from scratch to
build a company like Merchant Ivory today, what would you advise?
IM: Well it would be a big mountain climb-very
steep. It is possible; you have to have a fighting spirit. And we
fight today to get our films distributed and shown. In England,
for example, most of the great independent distributors are gone.
There are about two left. Artificial Eye is one that is still there.
The policy of the cinemas is that they will give you a booking for
two weeks and that’s it. At the end of that two weeks they already
have another film booked, and you are out.
MM: Is that because of a lack of screens?
IM: It’s because there’s a lot of product,
and because the distributors have become very greedy. They want
to make the maximum amount of money.
MM: Is it difficult to take off the producer’s
hat when you are directing?
IM: When I was doing In Custody, there
was a scene we were working on and the cameraman had set up the
shot and there was a prop missing, so I leapt up to get it. The
cameraman looked around and said, ‘Where are you?’ (laughs). He
said, ‘While you are directing the film you can’t do the production
work. Leave that to someone else.’ That is very hard.