- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

Ismail Merchant is known first and foremost as a movie producer. He's the producing component of Merchant Ivory Films, a partnership that began in 1961 and reached optimum cinematic prestige with the film versions of "A Room With a View," "Howards End" and "Remains of the Day."
Mr. Merchant's last trip to Washington, on behalf of the movie version of "The Golden Bowl," directed by James Ivory, occurred shortly after the esteemed producer had completed one of his occasional directing projects. That was another prestige literary adaptation, "The Mystic Masseur," derived from the first novel by V.S. Naipaul.
In the interim, a few things had happened to enhance the film's prospects. Mr. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and "Masseur" acquired a distributor, an art-house newcomer called ThinkFilm, after a debut at the Telluride Film Festival.
Now playing at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, "Masseur" was the first theatrical feature of note to be shot in Mr. Naipaul's Trinidad since 1955, when the "Gilda" co-stars Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford were reunited for "Affair in Trinidad." The subject matter of that production was not exactly indigenous. "The Mystic Masseur" was published two years later.
Mr. Merchant, in town recently for press interviews at the Mayflower Hotel, expressed an enthusiasm for Trinidad that might provide a single-handed tourist boost for the island. He returns a very satisfied guest.
"We were lucky to be able to shoot the entire film there," Mr. Merchant says. "We had two private investors, one an Indian, the other a company in Trinidad itself. We were greeted by a lot of interest: first, Naipaul; second, Merchant-Ivory. Many, many people asked about another Naipaul book, 'A House for Mr. Biswas.' I had to explain repeatedly that while I shared their admiration, 'Mystic Masseur' appealed to me more as a movie subject."
Mr. Merchant was also asked more than once if he might shoot another film in Trinidad. He repeats his answer, "Why not?" and explains: "There are so many other wonderful early books with Trinidad as the setting. If time permits, I would certainly look forward to working there again. But we have many commitments from elsewhere to fulfill. Nothing should prevent others from considering the Naipaul books. The vivid characters are there, and the settings could be visually unique. Our experience was completely positive."
At the moment Mr. Merchant, 65, is preparing his next project with longtime collaborators Mr. Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It's an adaptation of the Diane Johnson comic novel "Le Divorce," set in contemporary Paris. He had approached Mrs. Jhabvala, an Academy Award winner for her screenplay of E.M. Forster's "Howards End," about providing the script for "The Mystic Masseur." She declined, citing "two drawbacks." She was unfamiliar with the Trinidad setting and the islanders' distinctive English patois.
"Ruth thought the dialogue might be especially difficult for her," Mr. Merchant explains, "but she recommended the writer we did hire, Caryl Phillips. She knew he came from the islands, from St. Kitts, although he had grown up for the most part in Leeds and lived in England. Ruth knew his books and all. I approached him, and he got very interested. He and I took a trip to Trinidad and got along famously."
Although aware of the mass migration from India to Trinidad in the 19th century, Mr. Merchant says he was nearly ignorant of its social effects until he visited the country. His family comes from Bombay. If any branch of the family had been involved in the Trinidad migration, the experience had failed to become a part of family lore and remembrance.
"I had no idea," he says. "Most of the Indians who migrated were from U.P., the United Provinces. There was a huge sugar cane industry there. When slavery was abolished in the Caribbean, many of the former slaves who had worked cane fields did not want to continue. So the English recruited Indian labor to replace them. It's a fascinating history. When I went there and looked around, I found these pockets that were completely Indian.
"It's thought of as a black country, but there has been a substantial Indian population for 160, 170 years. They developed and prospered and sustained their own culture. They built temples, brought in spices and music and food. There's this fascinating mixture of African and Indian culture. It's such a vibrant place. I felt very at home. It's also off the typical tourist track. When you go there, people are welcoming."
Port of Spain served as headquarters for the film company. Florida was an easy place from which to supply the firm's technical needs, Mr. Merchant says. Rushes were shipped to New York by air and were available for the director's scrutiny about 48 hours later. "I was on the phone regularly with our film editor in New York," Mr. Merchant says. "He would call if he thought we required more coverage in any scene a close-up here or there. It's a great blessing to have somebody tell you promptly that you need a little punch in this part or that part."
Mr. Merchant required no studio space. If real houses or buildings seemed inadequate to the needs of the story, which covers events in the 1950s and 1960s, his crew of carpenters built temporary structures. The entire village called Four Ways went up in a matter of weeks.
"We found a beautiful rural setting near a bamboo grove," Mr. Merchant recalls. "Our production designer, Lucy Richardson, working from period photos of shops and homes, supervised the construction of all the buildings at this crossroads. We started right after Christmas. It's a very good season, the winter. It starts to heat up in March. You do face a little competition from an extended holiday season. A lot of people are involved in Christmas and then Carnival celebrations, both a very big occasion. We sought the advice of a local production guy, and he recruited a wonderful team of workers for us in both the city and countryside."
Mr. Merchant knew Mr. Naipaul slightly before becoming enthusiastic about a movie adaptation of "The Mystic Masseur," the anecdotal, rags-to-riches chronicle of an aspiring author, Ganesh Ransumair, played by Aasif Mandvi, who achieves homegrown renown as both an amateur healer and inspirational man of letters.
"I had met Naipaul through Ruth," Mr. Merchant explains, "in Delhi, years ago. We met again in London at some point. When I became interested in this film, I contacted his agents, in both New York and London. They kept giving me a runaround refused to sell an option but wouldn't quote a price for buying the film rights outright."
Mr. Merchant then wrote the author directly. He proposed sending him a copy of the film "In Custody," one of the movies Mr. Merchant had directed. If that proved a confidence-builder, a subsequent meeting about "The Mystic Masseur" could follow.
Mr. Naipaul capitulated by letter. As Mr. Merchant recalls the surrender terms, "He wrote me, 'I know your persuasive powers are legendary. I give you the rights to negotiate with my agents.' So we struck a deal. I kept him informed about the progress of the movie. We sent him location photos. I tried to get him to travel to Trinidad. He said he would, and a date was fixed, but then he just couldn't come. People there were very excited at the idea of the movie and the thought that Naipaul might make a homecoming. They still like to think of him as a son of the soil and all that."
Mr. Merchant is the author of four books about cuisine and travel. His reputation as a cook led to a small dinner engagement at his home with the Naipauls as guests.
For a while the host feared that he had miscalculated the menu.
"When Naipaul's new wife strolled into the kitchen," Mr. Merchant recalls, "she asked what I was preparing. I said mackerel and she broke the bad news: Naipaul hates mackerel.
"Fortunately, I had brought this special condiment, tamarind sauce, back from Trinidad. So I cooked the mackerel in this sauce and presented it to my guests, with lentils and cauliflower and rice pilaf. He took a little and said, 'This is delicious. Mackerel, but prepared in a different way.' That was a great victory and yet another reason to feel grateful to Trinidad."

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