Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died Wednesday at the age of 85. Born in Germany to Jewish parents, she moved to India from London after her marriage to a Parsi architect. In 1963, Prawer Jhabvala was an established fiction writer when she was approached by filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory about adapting her novel “The Householder” to the silver screen. That moment was the beginning of a legendary partnership that resulted in over 20 films and two screenwriter Oscars for Prawer Jhabvala.
Speaking about the partnership, Ismail Merchant once famously said, “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!”
Here’s a roundup of some of the obituaries highlighting Prawer Jhabvala’s extraordinary life:
Ruth went on to live an international life. She earned a degree in English Literature at Queen Mary College, London University, and in 1951 she married Cyrus Jhabvala, an architect. Together, they moved to Delhi, where they raised three daughters, who are now married to an Indian, an American, and an Englishman. She had never felt quite settled in India, and eventually she moved to New York.
“A Room With A View won Jhabvala her first screenwriting Oscar in 1985. Another Forster novel, Howard’s End, won her her second, by which time she’d become central to the Merchant/Ivory brand, bringing wit and sophistication to The Bostonians, Shakespeare Wallah, Heat And Dust, Jefferson In Paris — 22 films in all, across four decades.”
It was her fiction that had brought Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory to her door. In the early 1960s, when the two men had made only a handful of films together, they approached Mrs. Jhabvala to write a screenplay based on her novel “The Householder,” about the trials of a young Indian husband. The film, made in India in black and white, was released in the United States in 1963. She shared writing credit with Mr. Ivory for a few of the team’s early films, including “Shakespeare Wallah” (1965), “The Guru” (1969) and “Bombay Talkie” (1970).
She was a brilliant storyteller. Her work darkened towards the end of her life: she wrote of deception and self-deception and of time’s revenges, the twists and turns of an implacable fate that her worst charlatans could manipulate to their advantage. Her vision was bleak; her tone austere. But her supply of complex characters and subtle, vivid scenes was inexhaustible and she caught the ambiguities of human behaviour and the pleasures of the senses in precise, perfect words.
Prawer Jhabvala is survived by her husband and her daughters Renana, Ava and Firoza. For a full list of her films, visit her IMDB page here.