Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 85; novelist became key member of film team

Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with directors Ismail Merchant (left) and James Ivory.
Merchant Ivory Productions
Oscar-winning screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with directors Ismail Merchant (left) and James Ivory.

WASHINGTON — Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German-born novelist whose fiction was set largely in India and who gained her greatest acclaim as a two-time Academy Award-winning screenwriter with the Merchant-Ivory filmmaking team, died April 3 at her home in New York City. She was 85.

She had a pulmonary disorder, said James Ivory, a director who had worked with Mrs. Jhabvala since the early 1960s.

Mrs. Jhabvala’s life took many unusual turns, beginning with her exile to England from her childhood home in Germany, but none was more surprising than her journey into the world of filmmaking.


After moving to New Delhi with her Indian-born husband in the 1950s, Mrs. Jhabvala wrote a series of novels and short stories set in her new homeland. In 1961, she received a phone call asking if she would write a screenplay of her novel ‘‘The Householder.’’

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The call came from Ismail Merchant, a young producer from India who was making his first feature film. The director was Ivory, an American who hadmade only documentaries. Mrs. Jhabvala accepted, despite knowing almost nothing about screenwriting, and the film was produced in 1963.

Merchant, Ivory, and Mrs. Jhabvala became one of the most enduring creative teams in moviemaking history.

Together for more than 40 years, until Merchant’s death in 2005, the trio made more than 20 films, including several genteel dramas based on the novels of Henry James and E.M. Forster. Mrs. Jhabvala won Oscars in 1987 and 1993 for her screenplays of ‘‘A Room With a View’’ and ‘‘Howards End,’’ both adapted from novels by Forster.

Her literate, subtly shaded screenplays were lauded for their depictions of people caught in social worlds circumscribed by manners and emotional restraint. She was nominated for a third Academy Award for screenwriting for ‘‘The Remains of the Day’’ (1993), from a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro about the life of a butler in an English manor house between the two world wars.


‘‘Ruth’s a genius, really,’’ actress Emma Thompson, who starred in ‘‘Howards End’’ and ‘‘The Remains of the Day,’’ told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. ‘‘She’s a novelist, so she understands the art of adapting novels better than most anyone else. She understands the process, the ‘buzz of implication’ that surrounds words. . . . Ruth understands it completely.’’

In film and fiction, Mrs. Jhabvala examined the theme of cultural dislocation, of outsiders becoming involved in — and sometimes victimized by — an exotic, foreign environment.

She often wrote of the bewilderment of Westerners encountering life in India. Several female characters in her fiction became caught up in ill-fated love affairs or were swept along by currents of a world they didn’t understand.

In her 1975 novel ‘‘Heat and Dust,’’ Mrs. Jhabvala wrote about a British woman’s travels as she sought to understand the life of an aunt who deserted her husband in the 1920s after falling in love with a prince.

‘‘During my first few months here, I kept a journal so I have some record of my early impressions,’’ the narrator said in the novel. ‘‘If I were to try to 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.’’


The book won the Booker Prize, Britain’s highest literary honor, and was made into a 1983 Merchant-Ivory film.

Mrs. Jhabvala’s early books were compared favorably with the novels of manners of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh. Later, as she adopted a more critical tone toward an India beset by poverty and inertia, she faced more criticism from her Indian readers.

‘‘Nobody else in India had that clarity of vision of the new society, or that acuteness of observation,’’ novelist Anita Desai told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2005. ‘‘It’s very sad that there was, and continues to be, resentment towards a foreigner writing about India with such frankness and irony.’’

Ruth Prawer was born May 7, 1927, in Cologne, Germany, to a prosperous Jewish family.