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Coming of Age

Merchant Ivory solidifies its position as father of independent film

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 17, 1998 | 7:59 pm

Ismail Merchant was brash and charming as he recently took a call from The Journal at his New York office. The Merchant Ivory producer was eager to promote his latest film, "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," in which a girl comes of age while living with her expatriate parents in Paris in the 1960s and '70s. The movie, starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey, is based on Kaylie Jones' semi-autobiographical novel about life with her father, author James Jones.

Like many Merchant Ivory films, "Soldier's Daughter" explores the conflict of cultures and the pressures experienced by protagonists living in exile. The pre-occupation makes sense when you consider the diverse backgrounds of the artists who run the company. Director James Ivory, a Catholic from a wealthy Oregon lumber family, made his first films in Italy and India. Producer Merchant, a Muslim whose father headed the Bombay branch of the Muslim League, moved to New York at age 22 to get into show business. Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a Jew and Holocaust refugee, settled with her Parsee husband for a time in New Delhi.

Today, the filmmakers live in the same Manhattan apartment building and share a sprawling manor house in Claverack, N.Y. "We observe each others' holidays and traditions," says Merchant, who fasts on Yom Kippur and joins Jhabvala for the proverbial bowl of matzo ball soup. About Ruth's soup, Merchant, an epicurean and cookbook author, delicately says, "She tries."

About filmmaking, however, the artists invariably concur. "Our movies strive to understand human beings of various cultures and religions, in the same way we understand our own," Merchant says.

The story of Merchant Ivory begins with Ismail Merchant, whose panache for extracting funds from reluctant backers on several continents has made the company a pioneer of independent film.

The producer traces his powers of persuasion to his childhood, when, as the pampered only son of a textile merchant, his parents and six sisters doted on his every word.

In New York in 1961, he met the professorial Ivory at a screening of Ivory's documentary about Indian miniature painting. Over coffee, he persuaded the novice director that they could do great things together. Before long, the two men were off to India to convince shy, reserved Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to sell the movie rights of her novel, "The Householder."

Merchant says he was fascinated by Jhabvala's Holocaust background, having learned the details of the Shoah only the previous year. "I saw the Swedish documentary, 'Mein Kampf' in San Francisco in 1960," he says. "Afterwards, I was horrified and full of anguish. I had learned the extent of what humans can do to each other."

In the '70s, Merchant was so affected by the Italian Holocaust classic, "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis," that he can still "vividly recall the scenes, shot by shot." The producer points out that while he has directed only four films for Merchant Ivory, one has a Holocaust theme. "The Proprietor" (1996), starring Jeanne Moreau, tells of the daughter of a Holocaust victim who travels to Paris to reclaim her mother's pre-war apartment.

Jhabvala did not write the film, Merchant says. In fact, she was so traumatized by the Nazis that she rarely spoke of the past. Merchant and Ivory did not learn the specifics of her experience until she delivered a speech on the subject in 1979. Then, she described a family tragedy as gripping as any Merchant Ivory film.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Cologne, Germany in 1927, the daughter of a Jewish solicitor from Poland and the granddaughter of the cantor of the largest synagogue in Cologne. She began writing stories and poems, she has said, as soon as she learned the alphabet. Many of her relatives were "patriots" who had "sung for the Kaiser and the Fatherland" during World War I.

When the Holocaust began, her immediate family managed to escape to England, where 12-year-old Ruth quickly learned English, continued to write fiction and read voraciously in her adopted language. "Not really having a world of my own, I made up for my disinheritance by absorbing the world of others," she has said. "The more regional, the more deeply rooted a writer was, the more I loved them: George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens. Their landscapes, their childhood memories, became mine. I adopted them passionately... It was as if I had... no country of my own, but only theirs."

At the end of the war, Jhabvala learned that all her father's relatives -- more than 40 people -- had died in the concentration camps. Her father, Marcus, was so despondent that he committed suicide in 1948. Several months later, Ruth met the Indian architect Cyrus Jhabvala; in 1951, they married and moved to New Delhi. She reveled in the exotic new "world of sensuous delights;" her enthusiasm, she has reflected, was a response "to the bleakness and deprivations of my own childhood [in] Nazi Germany and then wartime-blitzed London."

Jhabvala ecstatically began writing about India, but her novels turned darker as she gradually became disillusioned with "the tide of poverty, disease and squalor." After her three daughters were grown, she told her husband she could no longer live in India. The couple began a transcontinental marriage; Ruth made her primary home a flat a floor above Merchant's and Ivory's on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

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