Merchant Ivory: A Transnational Success Story
The phrase ‘Merchant Ivory’ today conjures up images of genteel Edwardians sipping iced tea in idyllic country gardens or kissing passionately on a Florentine bridge. Throughout fifty years of filmmaking and forty-four feature films, Merchant Ivory Productions have become synonymous with particularly English stories. However, the company, founded in 1961 by producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, was not founded to tell these particularly English stories. Rather, the company’s initial intention was to “make English-language films in India aimed at the International market”.
Merchant Ivory's first film, The Householder, adapted from a novel of the same name by screenwriter and long-time Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, was shot entirely on location in India and featured a young Indian couple coming to terms with their arranged marriage. The follow-up, Shakespeare Wallah, told the story of a group of nomadic British actors performing Shakespearian plays in post-colonial India, directly confronting India’s intricate national identity in the wake of independence from Britain. Acclaimed Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray played a significant role in both of these films, supervising the music, advising Merchant and Ivory, and even, in the case of The Householder, editing the film. Shakespeare Wallah enjoyed relative success on the international market and secured a Best Actress Silver Bear for Madhur Jaffrey at the 1965 Berlin Film Festival. So The Guru, Bombay Talkie, and Autobiography of a Princess followed; every one filmed in India and featuring Indian actors as well as themes and subject matter particular to India. The impetus and direction of the company changed, however, when Ruth Prawer Jhabvala suggested adapting Henry James’s The Europeans in 1979. From then on, adaptations of old and new favourites of the English Literature canon – Henry James, E.M. Forster, Kazuo Ishiguro and Jean Rhys – became a Merchant Ivory specialty.
Merchant Ivory films, therefore, reveal an intricate relationship with nationality, history and post-colonial India, their forty four feature films recounting the stories of both the colonial power and the newly independent state. This sense of a jumbled up history and nationality is reflected in the identities of the Merchant Ivory filmmakers themselves. Ismail Merchant once commented: "It is a 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!"
In the end, many or most of the films in the Merchant Ivory stable ended up being set in America or England. And yet, for all the old-world power dynamics on screen, the production company has a new world mentality. They have mastered the culture industry, enjoying huge critical and commercial success and working with some of the greatest actors and filmmakers in the world along the way. (A Merchant Ivory stable of actors emerged – including Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins and Simon Callow.) Their films triumphed at award ceremonies, bringing them international acclaim. Howards End, for example, received nine Academy Award nominations and won three, including a Best Actress statuette for the luminous Emma Thompson. When it comes to independent film, Merchant Ivory are a raging success story and the stuff of middle class capitalist dreams of any nation.
It would be imprudent to think that Merchant Ivory films are stuffy and conventional. Many focus on progressive characters seeking to change certain aspects of Edwardian society. Women are central to Merchant Ivory films; they are the protagonists in a distinctly masculine world, their concerns represented on screen with a delicate focus. Helena Bonham Carter is passionate and free-spirited in Howard’s End, despairing at her brother-in-law’s dismissal of a poor working class couple and desperately seeking to bring about a change in their fortunes. The Bostonians, on the other hand, has a female friendship at its core; expertly handling themes of male-female power dynamics and the sacrifice one must make to further a cause. The film stars Vanessa Redgrave as an older woman keen to tutor her charismatic young friend Verena (Madeleine Potter) to become a leader in the burgeoning American movement for female emancipation. The film is an intimate and intriguing probing of feminist ideals that still resonates today. Maurice, their 1987 romantic drama and critical hit, offers up a similarly anti-establishment slant. The story of homosexual love in early twentieth century Britain, Maurice premiered at the Venice Film Festival to widespread acclaim.
However, as their nineties hey-day passed, Merchant Ivory seemed to lose their way somewhat. Their 1999 feature Cotton Mary, anchored around the relationship between a British woman living in India and her child’s Indian nanny, came under scrutiny among members of India’s Anglo-Indian community. Many felt it depicted Anglo-Indians as subservient and spineless while others criticized Cotton Mary for it’s portrayal of Anglo-Indian woman – apparently obsessed with Britain and white men. Merchant, himself Indian, reacted to the criticism by saying that the depiction of one character did not and should not serve as a reflection of the entire community. In later years they experimented with different genres and more contemporary settings. Alas, this didn’t always work. 2003’s Le Divorce, starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, received largely negative reviews. Some say Le Divorce was let down by a lack of chemistry between Watts and Hudson. But perhaps the fantasy of being overcome by an affair with a dashing older French man is simply of another era. For the most part, however, the Merchant Ivory back catalogue is one which can be revisited again and again. Clever, unconventional, passionate and beautiful, their films offer old world delicacy hand in hand with new world ideals.