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Ismail Merchant

May 25, 2005

Ismail Merchant dies at 68

Merchant Ivory film producer Ismail Merchant has died at the age of 68, his London office has said. He died in a London hospital this afternoon. The cause of death was unclear, but a spokesman said the Indian-born producer had suffered from stomach problems over the past year.

Along with his creative partner James Ivory, he made such acclaimed period films such as Howards End, A Room With A View and Remains of the Day. Merchant Ivory won six Oscars since the pair's famous partnership began in 1961 with German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Their films, particularly the adaptations of EM Forster's A Room With a View and Howard's End, helped revive audiences' taste for period dramas. Fellow film producer Lord Puttnam said he was an "extraordinary talent". "What's gone is a major character and a unique film producer - someone who completely defined independence in the film industry," he said.

Sanjeev Bhaskar, who interviewed Merchant on the BBC's Kumars at Number 42, said he had a great sense of humour. "A great creative light in the world has gone out," said Bhaskar, who starred in Merchant Ivory's the Mystic Masseur.

Long partnership

Merchant produced almost 50 films for the company and also turned his hand to directing on a handful of occasions.

He was born in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, in December 1936 and educated in New York. His first film was a short feature called The Creation of Woman which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1961.

Shortly afterwards, he met Ivory in New York and they formed Merchant Ivory Productions. The pair agreed that the company would produce English-language films in India for the international market. The collaboration went on to earn them a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest partnership in independent cinema.

Oscar success

Their work was praised for being intelligent and literary, but made little money until the mid-1980s when A Room with a View became an international success. It was awarded three Oscars, including best screenplay, and was nominated for five others.

"A Room With A View" made Merchant Ivory household names. Merchant said in an interview with the Associated Press last year that their films worked because they told good stories. "It should capture something wonderful with some great characters whether it's set in the past or in the future," he said.

He did not like such films being referred to merely as costume dramas. "People misunderstand," he once commented. "If you wear costume and you're in a stately home, yes, it's a costume drama. But people don't say that it's also a good story."

Merchant also had a passion for food and wrote several books about cookery - including a collaboration with celebrity chef Madhur Jaffrey. The film-maker also enjoyed cooking for his cast and crew on film sets.

He died at a London hospital on Wednesday, surrounded by family and friends.

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