Filmmaker Ismail Merchant Dies at 68

Filmmaker Ismail Merchant (search), who with partner James Ivory (search) became synonymous with classy costume drama in films such as "A Room With A View" and "Howards End," died Wednesday. He was 68.

Merchant died surrounded by family and friends at a hospital in London, Merchant Ivory Productions (search) said.

Merchant, who was born in Bombay but spent most of his life in the West, had been unwell for some time and recently underwent surgery for abdominal ulcers, according to Indian television reports.

Merchant and Ivory, an American, made some 40 films together and won six Oscars since forming their famous partnership in 1961 with German-born screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (search).

Their hits — especially E.M. Forster (search) adaptations like "A Room With a View" and "Howards End" — helped revive the public's taste for well-made, emotionally literate period drama.

In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Merchant said Merchant-Ivory films worked because they captured great stories.

"It should be a good story — speak about a time and place that is permanent," he said. "It should capture something wonderful with some great characters whether it's set in the past or in the future."

Merchant generally served as producer, the business mind behind the collaboration, while Ivory directed.

Merchant first traveled to the United States in 1958 to study for a business degree at New York University.

He met Ivory in a New York City coffee shop in 1961. Their first film together, "The Householder," was based on a novel by Prawer Jhabvala, and its 1963 premiere was held at the residence of then-U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith.

"When we first began, Ruth told us she had never written a screenplay," Merchant told AP. "That was not a problem since I had never produced a feature film and Jim had never directed one."

Merchant and Ivory departed in recent years from the flawlessly appointed period films for which they were famous.

They offered their take on French farce in 2003 with "Le Divorce," starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts.

They also were at work on "The Goddess," a musical about the Hindu goddess Shakti (search), starring a singing, dancing Tina Turner. Also to be released is "The White Countess," a period drama set in China and starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave and Natasha Richardson.

Information about survivors was not immediately available.