Florentine Homage to Ismail Merchant -- a very special doc about a very special man
For a certain niche group of cinephiles ever since the release of a film called "Shakespeare Wallah" in 1965, the "Merchant-Ivory" label has become synonymous with high-brow rarified taste in cinema in some way associated with India ("A Passage to India", Room with a View) but, to be brutally frank, since "Merchant-Ivory" productions were never exactly my cup of tea (although I made valiant efforts to stay awake in some of their films), I never paid enough attention to figure out who did exactly what, whether they were both Indian or half- Indian or what -- and merely assumed that they were in some sense co-directors something like their polar opposites, the Coen brothers in the frozen wastes of Minnesota.
From this fascinating documentary "In Ismail's Custody" (RT 50') which backed up the Merchant directed film "in Custody" and is basically a biopic about Mr. Merchant, much of this cloudiness was cleared up, and in addition I witnessed one of the best documentaries of this type I have ever seen! It turns out that Merchant, who passed away in May 2005 at the age of 68, was indeed fully Indian despite the non-Indian sounding surname, (not unusual in Bombay) and was the dynamic producer-half of the team, whereas James Ivory, often mistaken for an Englishman because of the Englishness of his films, is actually an American. Moreover, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the regular screen writing third member of the production team, was actually German-Jewish although at one point she married an Indian and became a total indophile always dressing in saris. All three are portrayed in London's National Portrait Gallery which is normally the preserve of pure Anglo-Saxons! The list of people whose paths intertwined with Merchant's own and who appear in the film bearing various testimonies as to Merchant's dynamism, prowess as a producer, and personal charm, is in itself impressive: actor Anthony Hopkins, director James Ivory, his consort and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (invariably clad in a sari), actress Emma Thompson, Indian star Shashi Kapoor, the noted American film critic Andrew Sarris, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Hollywood tycoon and Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Anita Desai, the author of the novel 'In Custody' which was to become Merchant's only directed film, the charismatically beautiful actress Shabana Azmi who had an important role in the film of 'In Custody', Zakir Hussain, musician and Actor of 'In Custody, Ustad Sultan Khan, composer and musician of 'In Custody', and even American hee-haw actress Goldie Hawn, who happened to be attending the London premiere of 'In Custody'. But the star of the film is, of course, Merchant himself whom we see at many stages of his career, and who comes across as a genuine film lover out to make the best films possible and "damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!"
Very handsome and charismatic in his youth -- I kept thinking of the young Leonard Bernstein -- we see Merchant develop into a true champion of the special kind of art film he always promoted. Not many Merchant-Ivory films became really big hits --"Remains of the Day" and "Howards End" being major exceptions -- and some were out-and-out box- office flops, but it is precisely here where the Merchant mystique comes to the fore when he says with evident conviction that "You need to have failures in order to appreciate your successes -- that's what life is about -- success and failure, and you need both". Santini's documentary, without going overboard into the realm of fawning hagiography, certainly captures the essence of one of the most remarkable personalities ever to grace the world of film, whether the type of films he made happen to be your cup of tea, or not. Watching it I felt myself briefly in the presence of a special kind of greatness. The title of this doc, "In Ismail's Custody" is a sort of double-entendre referring both to the one film which Ismail actually directed im 1993, the year before this documentary was made, and also to the fact that Santini literally came under Ismail's custody, working as still photographer on three of Merchant's most ambitious productions; "Howards End", "Remains of the Day", and "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" (not directed by Ivory) based on an Edward Albee play and starring Vanessa Redgrave.
Merchant's fascinating film, IN CUSTODY, is reviewed separately under that IMDb title although the two should be seen together, as they were here in Florence. Kudos to Selvaggia for super savvy programming.
Alex, Firenze, Dec. 17, 2005
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