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 Wednesday at her home in New York City. She was 85.
She had a pulmonary disorder, said James Ivory, the film director who had worked with Jhabvala since the early 1960s.
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, Jhabvala wrote a series of novels and short stories set in her new homeland.
In 1961, she received a phone call asking whether she would write a screenplay of her novel The Householder.
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 had previously made only documentaries. Jhabvala accepted the project, despite knowing almost nothing about screenwriting, and the film was produced in 1963.
Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala formed what would become one of the most enduring creative teams in moviemaking history.
Nobody tried to push anybody around, Ivory said in an interview. In any artistic collaboration, you have to be above ego. It was the greatest possible privilege for me to be working with a real writer and someone I liked.
Together for more than 40 years, until Merchant’s death in 2005, the three made more than 20 films, including several genteel dramas based on the novels of Henry James and E.M. Forster.
Jhabvala won Oscars in 1987 and 1993 for her screenplays of A Room With a View and Howards End, both adapted from Edwardian-era novels by Forster.
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.