Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were illustrious and varied collaborators and with a career spanning over 40 years it was one of the most substantial partnerships in modern cinema. I have yet to see a lot of their work but the more films I encounter the more appreciative I am of what they have achieved given the tight budgetary constraints they worked under. Whilst much has been made of their so called heritage films produced in the late 80s and early 90s, their critical reputation rests largely on this sustained creative period. The problem with such a contentious categorising of their work is that inevitably everything else becomes somewhat secondary and simply a precursor for greater things to come. Yet in many ways it is their early work and continuous interest with India that gives them a decidedly unique and emboldened body of work. Films such as Bombay Talkie, The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat & Dust and The Deceivers may offer idiosyncratic tales of unfulfilled relationships but the clash of cultures in many of the narratives points to a sustained attempt to repeatedly interrogate the relationship between the West and India. Merchant and Ivory were exceptionally lucky to have cast the emerging and talented Shashi Kapoor in their debut feature – The Householder (1963). As it turned out the experience became an on going and very creative collaboration with Shashi Kapoor returning continuously over three decades to take the main lead in many of their best films on an ever evolving Indian society. The final element and one not to be overlooked was the contribution of writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. I do think it’s unfair that the title Merchant and Ivory remained consistent because its development into an international brand in the early 90s not only took the focus away from the contrasting ideological content of their films but obscured the contributions of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from the commercial and critical success of their finest films.
Released in 1970 Bombay Talkie continues to be dismissed by some critics as relatively insubstantial compared to their later work. Nevertheless, it is a well crafted piece of work with a very talented cast and crew who seem to really relish the opportunity of sending up the Bombay film industry. Utilising the typical Hindi melodrama situation of a love triangle in which we find two men with considerable egos – in this case a populist actor and a poet turned scriptwriter, vying for the affections of an English novelist (Jennifer Kendal – Shashi Kapoor’s off screen wife) who has come to India in search of an adventure, the film has in some ways become an influential work on western film makers approaching India from an outsider’s perspective. Perhaps this is most evident in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited – a film that raids the enchanting and memorable musical scores of Satyajit Ray. Vikram (Shashi Kapoor) as the egocentric playboy actor neglects the concerns of his wife (Aparna Sen) whilst his irrational and commercially motivated approach to cinema articulates a blunt criticism of the Bombay film industry. Sumptuously shot by Subrata Mitra, Ray’s regular cinematographer, and with a memorable score by industry regulars Shankar-Jaikishan, the film’s gradual shift into a tragic melodrama may at first seem like a grotesque denouement but on closer reflection seems like the perfect way of ending a film about the Bombay film industry and all its excesses. The opening titles are a work of art: