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||Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013)|
Anglo-Indian writer, who started as a novelist in the 1950s, and then in the mid-1960s began her successful career as a screenwriter with the Ivory-Merchant film team. Jhabvala won her first Academy Award for A Room with a View (1985) for best adapted screenplay. The second came for Howards End (1992). Both films were based on E.M. Forster's novels. Jhabvala's novel Heat and Dust was awarded the Booker Prize in 1975.
"But I think I could not have learned from films if I had not written all these novels and really learned how to set characters in motion. If you just sit down and write a screenplay, I don't think you can." (from Conversations with Screenwriters by Susan Bullington Katz, 2000)
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala was born in Cologne, Germany, the daughter of Marcus Prawer and Eleaonora Cohn. Her father, a
lawyer, was of Polish-Jewish origin and her mother was German-Jewish.
Jhabvala attended Jewish segregated school before she emigrated in 1939
with her family to Britain. The family settled in Hendon, northwest
London, where Jhabvala attended Hendon Country School.
Already as a child, Jhabvala wrote fiction in German. In her new home country she switched from German to English at the age of twelve. During the war years she read the works of Dickens; Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind she took with her during the bombings of London to an air raid shelter. Jhabvala's farher committed suicide after learning that the rest of his family had died in the Holocaust. Over forty of her family members were killed. Jhabvala's brother Siegbert Salomon Prawer became a professor of German literature at Oxford.
In 1948, Jhabvala became a British citizen. She studied English literature at the University of London, receiving her MA in 1951 from Queen Mary College. In the same year she married a Parsee architect, C.S.H. Jhabvala, with whom she moved to India. For the next 24 years she lived in New Delhi, where her husband ran an architertural firm and taught. In 1975, increasingly disenchanted with India, Jhabvala moved to New York City, dividing in the following years her time between two countries. Later Jhabvala also gained US citizenship.
Jhabvala started to compose stories at an early age, but as a
housewife in Delhi, she found enough time to write seriously. Her first
novel, To Whom She Will, appeared in 1955. She also began to contribute short stories to the New Yorker.
Her early novels depicted ironically the life and manners of Indian
middle-class families, Europeans trying to understand India, and the
clash between Eastern and Western cultures. From the beginning, the
theme of search has been a common thread in her work. Through her
architectural firm, she met families that lived a life that was much
different from the life she was living. Often her stories are seen from
the point of view of an outsider.
Some Indian critics have labelled Jhabvala's authorial detachment as a sign of old-fashioned Western attitudes toward India. "Jhabvala is a connoisseur of divided souls, conceiving characters whose inner longings are at odds with their outer protective coloration," wrote Deborah Mason in her review of Jhabvala's short story collection East Into Upper East (1998). The "East" in the title refers to New Delhi and the "Upper East" to New York. Noteworthy, Jhabvala's German-Jewish heritage has never occupied a central place in his work.
Jhabvala's Booker Prize novel Heat and Dust was a love story, which contrasted the 1920s and the 1970s. Olivia, a bored colonial wife, is married to an English officer, Douglas Rivers. She falls in love with the local nawab, a minor Indian prince. She becomes pregnant, has an abortion, and abandons her husband. Fifty years later her step-granddaughter, the narrator, travels to India to investigate the enigma of the family scandal. "Fortunately, during my first few months here, I kept a journal, so I have some record of my early impressions. If I were to try and recollect them now, I might not be able to do so. They are no longer the same because I myself am no longer the same. India always changes people, and I have been no exception." In her diary she tells about her own affair, she also becomes pregnant but she decides to have the child. The Washington Post compared the setting of the novel and its theme of Anglo-Indian relationships to E.M. Forster's famous novel A Passage to India. In In Search for Love and Beauty Jhabvala changed her scene from India to New York City, but used again one of her favorite themes, the way "odd shards and fragments of the past" affects the present. The story dealt with Austrian and German immigrants in New York and their destinies through three generations. Out of India (1986) was chosen by the New York Times Review of Books as one of the Best Books of 1986.
Jhabvala's collaboration with the producer Ismail Merchant and the
director James Ivory in their beautifully crafted film productions
started in the 1960s. Merchant had read in Hollywood Jhabvala's novel The Householder
(1960). The domestic comedy told of a newly-married couple, Prem and
Indu, Prem's new obligations, and his road to achieve the position of a
householder. In Delhi Merchant and the American director James Ivory,
with whom he had established a production company, approached the
author. The two filmmakers had heard that Jhabvala guarded her privacy
fiercely, which was proved when at first on the telephone she pretended
to be her mother-in-law. In an interview Jhabvala later confessed that
she wasn't even a film buff, and she hadn't seen many films. However,
their meeting led to one of the most extraordinary collaborations in
film production. Merchant and Ivory lived together in an apartment below Jhabvala's on New York's Upper East Side.
Jhabvala's adaptations of classic English novels include works by Henry James and E.M. Forster. The Remains of the Day (1993) was based on a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. In Conversations with Screenwriters Jhabvala revealed that when she writes a scene, she don't think much about it, how it's going to be in the film. "I just think, 'How are these two characters going to interact with each other?' I know it can't be the same as on the page in a novel - it must be much more direct and the language has to be simpler." The adaptation of A Room with a View was very faithful to the original text, although Jhabvala made small changes to streamline Forster's work for film by combining events.
A Room with a View was the first Forster novel to be adapted by Merchant Ivory Productions. It was followed by Maurice (1987), written by Kit Hesketh-Harvey and James Ivory, and Howards End, for which Jhabvala won her second Oscar. In 1990 she won the Best Screenplay Award from the New York Film Critics Circle for Mr.& Mrs. Bridge (1990), starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and in 1994 she received the Writers Guild of America's (WGA) Screen Laurel Award. - Ismail Merchant died in May 2005. At the time of his death he was working on The White Countess, based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala died at her home in Manhattan on 3 April, 2013, after a long illness.
For further reading: Merchant-Ivory: Interviews, edited by Lawrence Raw (2012); Conversations with Screenwriters by Susan Bullington Katz (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Ruth Prawer Jhabvala: Fiction and Film by J. Bailur (1992); Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by Ralp J. Crane (1992); The Films of Merchant Ivory by R.E. Long (1991); The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by L. Sucher (1989); The Indian Novel in English: A Critical Study by R.S. Singh (1977); The Fiction of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala by H.M. Williams (1973) - Note: The romantic leading man Shashi Kapoor, who played in many films produced by Ivory-Merchant team, made film history in 1977 - he kissed a former Miss Asia in a major film show. Kissing was voluntarily renounced by Indian film producers in the mid-1930s. "International" versions of films for overseas release only were exceptions and censors permitted kissing if one of the partners was a foreigner.