Monday, 18 August 2014

Kim's Review : My Passage From India

"My Passage From India" is the autobiography of Ismail Merchant - the famed Indian film director and producer who made it big even in Hollywood, earning 4 Oscar nominations and winning 2 BAFTA's. He was one half of  Merchant Ivory Productions with James Ivory being the other.

Their partnership has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest partnership in independent cinema history lasting over 44 years and spanning over 40 films.

Ismail Merchant was the producer of movies like "Remains of the Day", "Heat & Dust", "Howards End" and "A Room with a View". He even directed a few including "Cotton Mary", "The Mystic Masseur", "The Proprietor" and Documentaries like "The Courtesans of Bombay" and "Lumière and Company"

As a rule, I'm not a fan of autobiographies, but having watched a few of his movies and loving his cookbook "Ismail Merchant's Passionate Meals", when I saw this book at the library of the place we were staying at, I picked it up to just browse through it. However, after reading the first few pages, I was completely hooked.

The story of his life is beautifully written with humour and every incident is so vividly retold that it paints a picture for the reader, its almost like watching his life on a screen. That's how powerful his words are.

While he does try to underplay his origins and make them seem disadvantaged, he did grow up in an upper middle class family. His father was a textile dealer in Mumbai, who was quite active in politics (as President of the Muslim League) and they had family connections in the movies (It was Ismail's fascination with family friend "Nimmi" - one of the most popular actresses of yester-years, that sparked his undying interest in cinema. As the only son of the family with 6 sisters, he would also have been completely indulged.

He studied at St Xaviers in Bombay (the top college of those times) and then proceeded to New York University for an MBA. While he did show early signs of entrepreneurship and chutzpah while in India, it was living alone in New York which made him come into his element.

What might seem dishonest tactics that could result in being sued for millions in today's day and age, were stepping stones for him in his early life. And in most cases they seem to have won him admiration or amusement of those concerned.

For eg : he got a job as a messenger / guide for Indian Delegates to the UN in New York through the Indian Consulate by claiming that he knew the city very well, when in fact, he had barely gotten off the boat himself. He then charmed one of the Brazilian secretaries to introduce/announce him as a delegate whenever he was entertaining "important' guests. And he wined and dined people whom he felt could help him in the movie business (in any capacity) at the delegate lounge of the UN, by posing as an Indian delegate.

When the delegation returned to India, he visited the Indian Tourist Centre to check if they had any vacancies and this is where he met Saeed Jaffrey. Although there were no jobs available, this meeting led to a lifelong bond between the 2 and Saeed's then wife Madhur Jaffrey whom Ismail was later to cast in important roles in "Cotton Mary", "The Perfect Murder", "Heat and Dust", "Guru", "The Shakespear-wallahs" and "Autobiography of a Princess"

Saeed narrated Ismail's first documentary "The Creation of Woman" and was also instrumental in introducing him to James (Jim) Ivory (for whose documentary "The Sword and the Flute" Saeed had also provided the voiceover) who went on to become Ismail's Business and Life Partner.

Ismail does not elaborate too much on his personal relationship with James Ivory in this autobiography, except for a few stray hints of a relationship between the two.

Ismail was later known for the personally cooked meals that he dished out to his cast and crew. He says that it was his way of acknowledging their sacrifices, especially when working on films with as tight budgets as the Merchant Ivory Productions. But his first attempt at cooking, is beautifully described, even though it was done out of sheer necessity (of constrained budgets and the need to stand out to actors and financiers that he was wooing.) By the end of a couple of years, a lot of people agreed to work with him, just so they could partake of his famous meals. While initially he cooked ad hoc as needed, the End-Of-Week Curry Party was initiated during the shooting of "The Savages" and he even opened a restaurant in 1993.

The book is littered with trivia and is a delight to read, especially if you are familiar with the main characters of Hollywood and Bollywood in those early days. His meeting with Sigourney Weaver, when trying to cast her for "The Bostonians", has her father (Pat Weaver - Ismail's First Boss from McCann Erickson - Chairman of International Division) recounting their own first meeting, when Ismail moved from New York to LA and had a friend publish an extremely glowing article about him in the New York and LA newspapers.

Their first introduction to Ruth Prawer Jhabwalla and her husband Cyrus (who was convinced that they were charlatans) happened when they were trying to convince her to give them the rights to translate "The Householder" onto film. They also managed to convince her to write the screenplay and she went on to become their script writer for many more movies after. She was initially reluctant as she had never written a screenplay before, but they said that it wouldn't be a problem, since Ismail had never produced a feature film before and Jim (James) had never directed a feature film before. Ruth later went on to write the Booker Prize Winning "Heat & Dust" which they also translated onto film.

What is really touching in this book, is the humbleness of one of the Greatest Indian Directors - Satyajit Ray who often helped them without any expectation of anything in return. He introduced them to his cinematographer Subrata Mitra and recommended that he work with them. He edited their first Feature Film "The Householder" for free, and with the agreement that they could discard any changes that they did not like. He helped get their film into the Berlin Festival, where one of his own films was in contention. Of course they were grateful for all this help and were finally able to repay this immeasurable debt, by lobbying for (and succeeding) a Lifetime Achievement Award for him at the Oscars.

Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer Kendall were like an extended family to him and it was Shashi who introduced him to wine "If you have never tasted wine, then you have wasted your life"

Utpal Dutt being arrested for putting on Anti-Communist Maoist plays in Bengal just before the start of shooting of "The Guru", and being temporarily released into their custody by the Government of West Bengal, until the end of shooting on the assurance that he would be returned to jail at that time.

It is bits of stories like this, that make this autobiography so interesting.

There is so much more insight into the movies that they made, that I would need to re-watch those that I have seen before and I now have a long list of movies that I would like to watch. I have also added a lot of authors to my "Must-Read" list, based on his impressions - Jean Rhys, Henry James, John Cheever, E M Forster, Harry Keating, John Masters and Anita Desai.

While Merchant-Ivory achieved the pinnacle of success with their Oscar nominations, they also had their share of detractors. Peter Biskind's book, Down And Dirty Pictures, records that Quentin Tarantino, before the first ever showing of his ultra-violent gangster movie Pulp Fiction (1994) bounded on to the stage, asked those in the audience who liked "The Remains Of The Day" (set in the 1930s, with Anthony Hopkins as the repressed butler, struggling with his feelings for Emma Thompson's housekeeper) to raise their hands, and then pointed to the exit, yelling at them: "Get the f*** out of here!"

But, Ismail Merchant also won multiple accolades along side. In 2002 he received the Padma Bhusan from the Indian government and in 2003, he was made an honorary fellow of the BAFTA and received the Commandeur de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

This book was printed in 2002 and sadly Mr Merchant passed away shortly after in 2005. The spirit of his life and his autobiography can be summed up in his own words : "There is nothing to lose by asking and I have become seasoned in this practice, although I still find a refusal very hard to accept"

Its a lovely book and I heavily recommend it.

Rating : 4.5 / 5

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