Pramod Kapoor on Ismail Merchant

This came in on email today, from Roli Books, marked “We deeply mourn the sad passing away of our author Ismail Merchant”.

A tribute from the publisher

The man who as a child dared to confront ghosts in Karla caves, whose friends organized a star-studded show to buy him a passage to America to study, who bartered his home, made pickles for a free taxi ride in Paris, hitch-hiked with Paul Newman as a pillion rider in New York posing as a budding Indian film maker when he had not even touched a camera, who could get Utpal Dutt on loan from a Bengal jail for a day’s shoot, could not strike a bargain with fate in the end. He died of a bleeding ulcer in a leading London hospital with the best of medical help available.
Ismail Merchant was in the end too drowsy to charm the angels who came to take him away. He died before noon on Wednesday, 25 May before I could fix a dinner date with him in New York next week.
Born after six sisters, Ismail was patriarch to his family. The family looked upon him as a hero, the world saw him as a star. To his mother, he was a gift from Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, a man who became a Khadim. On occasions he would sweep the floor in Ajmer Sharif, give alms to the poor and cover the sacred shrine with yards of clothes with the reverence that only the devout can have. Why then, was He in such a hurry to take him away. Ismail was only 68.
I came late into his life. Five years ago he called me on my mobile: “Hi Pramod, this is Ismail Merchant.” Being used to prank calls I said, “If you are Ismail Merchant, I am Shashi Kapoor.” Little did I know that that real life call and my prankster-like reply would lead to an enduring friendship that went much beyond an author-publisher relationship.
“Come and have lunch with me in The Ivy in Soho. I have invited Greta Scacchi. Just the three of us. She wants to meet you, my publisher.” Could I refuse the invitation? “Tina (Turner) wants to go to Benaras, can we stay in your house?” How could I say no? “Let’s do a book on Merchant Ivory India, covering all those locations we have shot for various films.” How could I refuse? A charmer on the prowl, always on the move. A septuagenarian living in his teens. That was Ismail routinely.
My phone line was choked with calls from all over the world the moment TV channels announced his passing away. Instinctively, I called Shashi Kapoor, James Ivory and Wahid, his brother-in-law. They were too shocked to respond. Shashiji almost broke down on the phone. Grief has no boundaries and Ismail’s charm had a magnetic field that stretched well beyond the seven seas.
We all live on borrowed time from the moment we are born. On a grim London afternoon in January, when the mood was as grey as the skies, a junky looking at my stressed face remarked “ Don’t be so gloomy. It may never happen again. Keep smiling.” His stoned wisdom often makes me reflect. If only if I had gone to London a week earlier as planned.
The last time we were in London, Ismail had organized a private viewing of his film “In Custody” at a preview theatre in Soho for my family and our close friends.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock, Ismail would make an appearance however small, in almost all the films he made. In a moving scene in “In Custody” he appeared for a few minutes as a pall bearer carrying poet Nur’s coffin. Going by his past record I wouldn’t be surprised, if he came alive and made an appearance, however small at his own burial in Mumbai next week.

Pramod Kapoor

Publisher

Roli Books

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