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Limelight -- Merchant of dreams
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 10 - 2002


By Lubna Abdel-Aziz
He was born on Christmas Day, 1936. He was blessed with an infinite amount of good taste, which in itself is a rare and precious gift. He grew up cultivating his gift wisely and well. As a boy he loved to roam the overcrowded, narrow, twisted streets of his native Bombay. He had a quick eye for all its varied sights, and an eager ear for all its varied sounds, jumbles of bicycles, animals, carts, wagons piled high with vegetables, fish, snakes. He loved the smell of pungent spices and familiar delectables seeping through the many homes and shops lining the streets. He thrilled at the melodious music filtering from the windows of the thousands of slum dwellers. Sometimes his heart would leap with pleasure and excitement at the many colourful sights and sounds. Sometimes it would plunge with sorrow and despair at the poverty, injustice and suffering . The best part of any day was to find refuge and solace between the walls of a dark movie theatre. As the lights dimmed, and the screen lit up, he would fly to faraway lands and seas, and dream his endless dreams. He would then walk home to his clean wide tree-lined street, his tall elegant modern building and listen to his vast collection of Western music. And he would dream again his many dreams -- and the West seemed so far away.
Ismail Noormohamed Abdul-Rehman, for that was his name, graduated from St Xavier College in Bombay. Often ringing in his ear, a voice heard by so many restless young hearts, whispered constantly, "Go West young man, go west". The West began to feel closer and closer. He followed the voice, packed his bags and headed for New York City. The city was waiting for him, and he was ready for the city. He decided to concentrate on business. It was the first and easiest step in fulfilling all his dreams. He received his Master's degree in Business Administration from New York University, and even in that busy mad capital of the Western world, he retained his impeccable taste, for all that was pure, noble and grand.
The Indian Diaspora brought many of his native brethren to the West. New York was filled with the same strong-scented bouquets of musk and myrrh, of the unique fumes of full-flavoured dishes tickling his palate, of graceful dancers swaying to their multifarious music. He relished and indulged in all that was Indian, wherever he was.
His best moments remained between the walls of a dimmed movie theatre, when the screen lit up. Destiny had called many years before, now its voice was loud and clear. This is what he is to do for the rest of his earthly life. He will spread India's culture to the West, promote and refine its moral message. Through the medium of film he was determined to strengthen these human virtues he held dear.
He started to work. His short film The Creation of Woman 1961, which he directed and co-produced, won him an Oscar nomination. Nothing could stop him now. That same year he met California-born James Ivory in New York, at the screening of Ivory's documentary The Sword and the Flute. Together they formed Merchant/Ivory Productions, which would produce some of the greatest and most meaningful films of literate cinema. Excellence was their brand name. It became their trademark. India was always calling, and he knew he must soon heed her call. His homeland seemed to beckon Ivory as well. The New York Asia Society commissioned Ivory to make a documentary about Delhi. This land of mysticism and mystery, of exotic foods and dances, became their focal point of operation. India had frozen the accounts of major American film distributors. These frozen rupees would be used to make English-speaking films in India for international release. While Ivory was busy directing, Merchant's business acumen was used in raising funds from a variety of available sources. He has been doing just that for the last 40 years of their partnership, reminiscent of the 60's glorious days of the Sam Spiegel/ David Lean duo. Together with writer and Oscar winner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, they have produced some of the most memorable classics on film, for which the literary and artistic world should be forever grateful.
Everyone's home film library should find prominently displayed some of EM Forster's elegant reflections on the human condition. In the realm of beauty A Room with a View (1986) has no equal. Room received 6 nominations and 3 Oscar wins, an achievement unheard of for a low budget English film. They repeated their success with Howard's End (1992) another Forster novel of class conflicts. The flawless casting headed by Sir Anthony Hopkins, resulted in yet another world class triumph of that perfect partnership. The film collected 5 nominations and won 3 Oscars, with Emma Thompson walking away with her Best Actress statuette. The teaming of Hopkins and Thompson was worth repeating, and so it was in Kazuo Ishigaro's Remains of the Day (1993), another meticulous period piece, set in WWII England. Merchant was well on his way. To date he has produced 44 films and there is every indication that the best is yet to come. The dreams he had dreamed in a dark lit movie house in old Bombay were being fulfilled. Now he was buying and selling dreams, like no other merchant ever had.
A tall, dark and handsome man, he has laughing eyes that could be intense and brooding, and an overwhelming charm that knew no bounds: "Merchant could probably charm the tusks off a rampaging elephant." Every actor of value stands in line for the chance to work with him -- Hugh Grant, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Paul Newman, Emma Thompson, Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Day Lewis, Jeanne Moreau, Helena Bonham Carter. Says Hugh Grant "for my two cents, and that's about what he paid me, I am proud to have been in one of his films." And why not? He is one of the best-known film producers in the world. He is now shifting his focus to his earliest dream of film directing, his latest respectable venture into the realm of visual beauty, fine literature and intelligent themes. He has just completed The Mystic Masseur about an Indian schoolteacher living in colonial 1940s Trinidad, who becomes a masseur to support himself while fulfilling his dream of writing a book. It is Nobel prize winner NS Naipaul's first novel.
His refined taste does not limit itself to great literary and artistic works. A gourmet cook, Merchant has authored several books on his exotic native culinary art, and he has a strong urge to feed everyone in sight.
He heads the International Jury of the 26th Cairo Film Festival (October 15-25), and if the nine members from around the globe are very good and very lucky, they will perhaps get a taste of some of the savoury, high seasoned essence of curry dishes, an amalgam of gentle yellow turmeric, sharp zesty cumin and crunchy blessed poppy seeds, generously sprinkled over Basmati rice and chicken tandoori. If your mouth is watering, seek his enchanting cookbook, Passionate Meals, The New Indian Cuisine for Fearless Cooks and Adventurous Eaters (1994).
He has dreams to sell, this noble Merchant -- dreams of moral worth and refinement, removed from the grandiose vulgarity so often confused with excellence. He sells dreams of elegance and beauty, of dignity and propriety, of literate splendour and intellectual stature and above all, of traditional reverence and venerable taste. With such exalted dreams to sell, who would not buy! I for one, am determined to be the first in line.


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