- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2005

LONDON - Filmmaker Ismail Merchant, who with his partner James Ivory became synonymous with classy costume-drama films such as “A Room With a View” and “Howards End,” died yesterday. He was 68.

Mr. Merchant died surrounded by family and friends at a hospital in London, Merchant Ivory Productions said.

“It is with great sadness that Merchant Ivory Productions announces that Ismail Merchant, our company founder and beloved producer for more than 44 years, has passed away after a brief illness in a London hospital,” the production company said in a statement on its Web site.

Mr. Merchant, who was born in Bombay but spent most of his life in the West, had been ill for some time and recently underwent surgery for abdominal ulcers, according to Indian television reports.

He and Mr. Ivory, an American, made about 40 films together and won six Oscars after forming their famous partnership in 1961 with German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Their hits — especially E.M. Forster adaptations such as “A Room With a View” (1985) and “Howards End” (1992), which won three Oscars apiece — helped revive the public’s taste for well-made, emotional period drama.

In an interview with Associated Press last year, Mr. Merchant said Merchant-Ivory films worked because they captured great stories.

“It should be a good story — speak about a time and place that is permanent,” he said. “It should capture something wonderful with some great characters, whether it’s set in the past or in the future.”

Mr. Merchant generally served as producer, the business mind behind the collaboration, while Mr. Ivory directed.

Miss Prawer Jhabvala said his relentlessness was crucial to their success.

“Without (Ismail), we couldn’t even get the things off the ground,” she said in 1992. “Once he’s made up his mind to make a film, he makes it. Nothing can get in his way.”

Born Christmas Day in 1936, Mr. Merchant first traveled to the United States in 1958 to study for a business degree at New York University but soon became involved in the film world.

He met Mr. Ivory in a New York City coffee shop in 1961. Their first film together, “The Householder,” was based on a novel by Miss Prawer Jhabvala, and its 1963 premiere was held at the residence of then-U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith.

“When we first began, Ruth told us she had never written a screenplay,” Mr. Merchant told AP. “That was not a problem since I had never produced a feature film and Jim had never directed one.”

The movies — known for their high quality and low budgets — were filled with lush panoramas of English and Indian countrysides and told powerful stories of class, manners, desire and love. Miss Prawer Jhabvala’s scripts spilled over with civilized drawing-room dialogue.

Among Merchant-Ivory’s other successes were “Shakespeare Wallah,” “The Europeans,” “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” “The Bostonians,” “Maurice” and “Quartet.” They made one bomb, “Slaves of New York,” in 1989.

In recent years, however, Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory departed from the flawlessly appointed period films for which they were famous.

They offered their take on French farce in 2003 with “Le Divorce,” starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts.

They were at work on “The Goddess,” a musical about the Hindu goddess Shakti, starring a singing, dancing Tina Turner. Also slated for release is “The White Countess,” a period drama set in China and starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson.

Mr. Merchant was unmarried and had no children.

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