Confessions of a bogus maharaja

Ismail Merchant on James Ivory, Jeanne Moreau and reincarnated leopards.

By Renee Monrose

Published November 4, 1996 7:06PM (EST)

Hello, Trianon Palace Hotel? I am calling for the Maharaja of Jodhpur," says the voice in clipped, Indian-accented English. "He requires a suite for several days  immediately!

"No, no, that is not the suite the Maharaja likes. He likes the one with the view of the meadow ...

"What is that? It is being renovated? The entire wing of the hotel is closed? Really uninhabitable? Oh, I see. Yes, well, that sounds very much to the Maharaja's taste."

"Excuse me, my good man, but maharajas do not take baths. They are bathed. His servants will bring buckets of water up to the room. Do not worry. The Maharaja does not care about comforts. But he must have that view."

The man on the telephone is Ismail Merchant and he is not playing a prank. No, indeed, he is hard at work. It's just that he has some rather eccentric methods as he goes about his business. Impersonating Indian royalty is one of them. Barging into the dressing rooms of actors he doesn't know (like Paul Newman) is another. It has been said that, in order to get a film made, Merchant "would sell his mother if he had to." So far, say his friends, he hasn't had to.

Known primarily as the producer of Merchant Ivory Films, a 35-year-long collaboration with James Ivory (director of such films as "Room with a View," "Howards End" and the recently released "Surviving Picasso") and the writer Ruth Prawler Jhabvala, Merchant is now turning some of his irrepressible energy to directing. His film "The Proprietor," which opened on October 9 and stars Jeanne Moreau, tells the story of a writer who returns to her birthplace to confront her past. The film is Merchant's homage to Francoise Truffaut, who directed Moreau in "Jules et Jim," and a panegyric on Moreau, an actress Merchant has long admired.

Now, about that suite. Merchant had to have it for his final shot. So the day after the telephone call, he arrived at the Trianon Palace Hotel dressed in an elegant silk kurta and trailing a "private secretary" (his cameraman). After a brief panic over the bathroom situation, the assistant manager bowed to "royalty's wishes" and turned over the key.

Merchant is a handsome man with intense, dark eyes, quicksilver moods and the digestive system of a native Bombayan. He uses these ingredients with the skill of a masterful cook. In fact, on top of everything else, he is a masterful cook. Whenever members of the crew or cast get uppity, he opens his spice cabinet and serves them a humblingly incendiary curry. It quells the uprising every time.

Merchant could probably charm the tusks off a rampaging elephant. He has a long history of staging outrageous stunts in pursuit of the things he wants  money, actors, locations  and getting away with it. Why does it work? Why do actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins, Joanne Woodward, Hugh Grant and Greta Scacchi line up for sometimes miserable working conditions and the Hollywood equivalent of peanuts? "Why not?" Merchant replies  as he frequently does to impertinent questions. "I just charm people into submission."

The real answer must be some passionate subcontinental thing. It certainly isn't a West Coast financial thing: The man has notoriously shallow pockets. As Hugh Grant said recently "For my two cents  and that's about what he paid me  I'm proud to have been in one of his films."

I met with Merchant several times over the past few months  at a restaurant in Manhattan (he didn't pay for my lunch); at his and Ivory's estate in the Hudson Valley (he cooked an incendiary dahl); and at the nearby home of his friend, the composer Richard Robbins.

Well, isn't it wonderful. We are meeting on a Thursday and I am having lunch with you. In India we say "Thursday is the day of good wishes." So, this is grand. Don't you think?

I'm supposed to ask the questions.

Oh, of course.

Tell me about the kind of films you want to direct. James Ivory is famous for directing adaptations of novels by 19th-century writers such as Henry James and E. M. Forster. The two movies you have directed are contemporary, and "The Proprietor" is not even based on a novel or short story.

Well, I will always do something that is close to my heart. That could come from something in real life, or it could come from a novel. My next project is based on a story that takes place in India in the 1930s. It's called "Man-Eating Leopard." It's a psychological thriller about a village which is terrorized by a leopard. The people hire a famous hunter to come and kill it. Then the hunter realizes the leopard is stalking him personally. It all has to do with the Indian belief in reincarnation and the fears that surround that.

Wait a minute. A thriller from Merchant of Merchant Ivory? And on top of that, you are a devout Muslim. Muslims don't believe in reincarnation, so what is this all about? Why does this interest you?

Why not? It's a very good story and I actually love mysteries and thrillers. I love all sorts of movies. Did you see "Independence Day"?

Yes, I did. You liked that? But let's get back to your movie and the reincarnation theme. What is it about "Man-eating Leopard" that attracted you?

Well, the story has to do with India and certain beliefs there that I find destructive. I am Muslim and, no, I do not believe in reincarnation. To my way of thinking, reincarnation is too formulaic: "If you have bad karma, you will be dealt a punishment and that's that." I don't believe this is true and find it a destructive way to think.

I believe that if you have committed a crime, if you have led a life which is a bad life, sooner or later you will repent because that is in your conscience. I think that at times during life, something comes along and lifts things up, like a veil which has covered one of the mysteries of life. There are so many mysteries and so many veils and when one of them is raised, you can see things very differently and this is a thing of great beauty. But so many people have a fear of unveiling things for themselves. It's like a road with a stone blocking it. You must use your imagination and courage in order to jump over the stone. And then you will succeed because of your ability and your talent. Or perhaps just because you have reached a new understanding about yourself. Believing in reincarnation can be a way of avoiding looking at things in a new way.

Tell me about "The Proprietor."

"The Proprietor" is the story of a writer who leaves Paris as a child and goes to America. This part takes place during World War II. Her mother stays behind and is killed in a concentration camp. The writer spends most of her life in the United States and has a very successful career. At some point, however, she decides she has to go back to France to face her past. It is about making connections to the past and to people and things that she had closed off. It is all about connecting different paths.

The character played by Jeanne Moreau "unveils" many things in the sense you spoke about before. Is that why you were drawn to the story?

Yes. Actually, I can't say I was drawn to the story because it is not based on a novel or a short story. Nor is it a biography. It came to me like a gift from the gods! A lot of seemingly chance events. Some people might call them coincidences, but to me, there are no coincidences in life. You know the famous line from "Howards End" -- "only connect"? Well, I believe this is what we must do: connect the things that seem to be opposites, the things that seem to be unrelated. If you can do this, the most amazing things can happen in your life.

Merchant Ivory films are known for exploring the clash of different cultures -- Indian and English, American and European. Is this a theme you want to keep exploring in your own films?

Oh, yes, the cross-currents and clash of cultures! It is something I will always be interested in. I grew up in Bombay but have spent most of my adult life in America, so this naturally is a theme very close to me. My first feature, "In Custody," was adapted from Anita Desai's novel about the destruction of the Urdu language and culture in India. This subject matter was very close to me as Urdu is my language and my culture.

This subject is interesting to all three of us -- Jim, Ruth and myself. It is a very 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! Ha! Ha!

You have a great love for the films of Satjiyat Ray. Are you interested in returning to Indian themes in particular?

I am a great fan of Ray's. But also of Renoir and Truffaut. These are the people I really admire. They deal with life on a personal level. But as far as returning to Indian themes -- no. In fact, I am in the process of developing an American project. I have lived here for many, many years now and it is my home. So America, or rather an American story, is something I am very interested in. Right now I am developing a project about a black musician and a social worker. It deals with the homeless and with salvation for someone who is down and out.

Merchant Ivory went through many years of relative obscurity. Were you ever discouraged? Did you ever think, "We should stop doing this?"

No, not at all. We have gotten some terrible reviews at times but if we depended on the judgment of the studios or critics, we never would have made more than one movie. Let me tell you a small story. I remember when we were trying to make "Heat and Dust." I went to one of the studios and happened to see a report that called it "Eat My Dust." Just imagine! Ha! Ha! Ha!

When I first heard Anthony Hopkins was going to play Picasso, I was nonplussed. The last movie I saw him in was "Remains of the Day," where he plays an incredibly repressed butler. He is also very English. It was hard for me to imagine him playing a passionate Spanish painter -- even harder than imagining him playing Nixon.

Well, Tony Hopkins could probably do anything. It's actually quite remarkable how much he resembles Picasso in the movie. They have the same body type.

You had great legal difficulties with the Picasso estate. Did Françoise Gilot cooperate with you at all on this film?

At first she agreed to cooperate with us and we were going to base the film on her book ("My Life with Picasso"), but two months before we began shooting she and Picasso's son, Claude, changed their minds. So we weren't able to use her book or any of Picasso's real paintings in the film. In some ways it probably freed us up. In other ways it was quite difficult. Because of the laws in France, we were never sure if the family would be able to shut down the whole production if we shot it there.

That sort of thing has never stopped you before. How did you manage to film the scenes in the Place de la Concorde, when the Nazis occupy Paris, and the one when the Allies liberate it?

Oh, that is quite a good story! Ha! We had always intended to shoot those scenes there, but once Gilot and the family decided not to cooperate, they could have gotten the police to stop us. And you know, when Merchant Ivory shoots a scene in public, everyone knows about it. Well, for the first time in my life, we were shooting two movies at once -- "Surviving Picasso" and "The Proprietor," and both of them -- quite coincidentally -- had scenes that took place in the Place de la Concorde. So we just told everyone we were filming a scene for "The Proprietor." Which, of course, we were. What a coincidence!

I thought you didn't believe in coincidences.

No, you're right, I don't. What I mean is you have to make connections. Just like today. Who would have ever thought you and I would be sitting here? Many good things have happened today -- we got a great review and I am having lunch with you. It is a very good Thursday, don't you think? And the day is not over yet!

Renee Monrose

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