September 29, 2008 13:39 IST
With the walls of his New York office filled with the framed posters of his films including the Oscar winner A Room with a View, a casual visitor meeting the late filmmaker Ismail Merchant could have missed the poster of a Paul Newman film, Somebody Up There Likes Me. Whenever someone asked Merchant about the Newman poster, he would smile and say: "Meeting him for the first time made me, more than ever, want to be a filmmaker and I told myself that someday I will make a film starring him."
Merchant would have repeated the story today had he been alive (Merchant died in 2005 age 68), just as the friends and acquaintances of Newman, actor, director, racecar champion, maker of fabulous salad dressings and a humanitarian, are paying the screen and stage legend tributes. Newman succumbed to lung cancer over the weekend at age 83. One of the best films Merchant produced in his four and half decades career was the dramatic comedy Mr and Mrs Bridge featuring Paul Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward. The critically acclaimed film, focusing on the tragic events in a upper crust Kansas family and the price the wife pays to the lopsided values, was released in 1990 to modest box office reception. Directed by James Ivory, the film fetched Woodward an Oscar nomination. Merchant met Newman for the first time in the early 1960s when the Mumbai-born would be filmmaker was pursing a business degree at New York University but had his eyes set on making films. Newman had not yet become a super star. The celebrity status would come later with such films as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and continue for many years with great hits including The Sting [Images] and Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, not to forget the dramatic and critically acclaimed hit Absence of Malice and The Verdict in the 1980s. "I thought he was a wonderful actor when I saw his early success Somebody Up There Likes Me when I was studying in Bombay," Merchant had said. "I forget how many times I saw it." When Merchant discovered Newman was acting in a Broadway production of Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth, Merchant somehow managed to meet with the actor after the show. A story has it that Merchant told the theatre manager he was a maharaja from India on a short visit to New York. Newman was surprised at the intensity of Merchant's interest and they chatted for a while. Then, Newman offered to drop Merchant at his hotel. "I had to tell him that I was staying in one of New York university's dormitories," Merchant said. "Paul was staying in a hotel near the theatre but he insisted driving some 20 minutes to drop me." Merchant was surprised that Newman wasn't driving him in a car. "He had a motorbike and he loved riding it. He simply said, 'Hop on', and I did. I could not believe I was riding a motorbike with Paul Newman." The two did not meet for more than three decades though Newman had seen many of the films Ismail Merchant produced and Ivory directed. When Newman agreed to work in Mr and Mrs Bridge with his wife, Merchant reminded him of their previous encounter. "He said something like, 'So you are that crazy Indian'," Merchant would say laughing loudly. While shooting for the film in a small Kansas town, Newman challenged the 'crazy Indian' to do something 'crazier.' A friend of the actor had sent a 10-pound salmon from Alaska. Newman knew Merchant's talent for cooking and that he had cooked delicious and simple meals for actors in his films. He must have also heard of Merchant's boast that any great chef should know how to create a banquet out of a handful of straw, and he, Ismail Merchant, could do just that. Newman took a quick look at the pantry and asked Merchant if he could turn in an Indian salmon dish. The actor said he would cook half the salmon his way. Merchant saw the pantry had few things: oil, black pepper, mustard seeds, vinegar and salt. There was no time to ride to the nearest city and buy Indian spices, if at all they had any. "I was even surprised to see the mustard seeds in the kitchen but by God, they saved the day for me," Merchant had said triumphantly. So while Newman cooked his side of the salmon with a touch of pepper and salt, Merchant made a coarse paste of mustard seeds, vinegar and black pepper and cooked his salmon. "I told Paul this is a typical Bengali dish and the Bengalis love mustard like crazy," Merchant declared. Whose salmon turned out to be better? "We said both versions were very good," Merchant had said laughing. "But of course, I knew mine was better." How could Merchant prepare the salmon if he had a few more ingredients? "I could still make the dish in less than 30 minutes," he said, "with an onion, tomato and bit of fresh ginger. The longer you marinate salmon, the tastier the dish would be. I suggest an hour long marinating in the refrigerator, in a covered non-metallic container. Since the mustard and soy sauce have salt in them, you may not want to add additional salt at the end of the cooking."
Below is the reconstruction of the recipe that Merchant offered:
Preparation: 10 minutes, marinating 10 minutes
4 salmon steaks
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons tomato sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons mustard paste
1 teaspoon freshly crushed black pepper
� teaspoon haldi
1 small piece of ginger, finely crushed
Salt to taste
� cup coriander or mint leaves
- Marinate the salmon in the mustard paste, olive oil and haldi for 10 minutes at room temperature.
- In a large saucepan, heat the spoonful vegetable oil and fry the onions for about two minutes over medium heat. Add the tomato sauce, ginger, soy sauce and black pepper and mix well. Add four tablespoons water and cook for two minutes over medium heat.
- Gently place the steaks in the saucepan and pour the marinade. Lower the heat and cook, covered, for three minutes.
- Slowly turn the steaks over and cook, covered, for two minutes. Check for salt. Remove from the heat and keep the dish covered for another five minutes.
- Add the coriander or mint leaves.