June 06, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

All of creation is one family,” Ismail Merchant said last year, quoting a Hindu proverb. The Bombay-born producer, who died May 25 in London at age 68 after undergoing surgery for stomach ulcers, was referring to his planned directing project The Goddess. But Merchant — known for fostering a familial atmosphere on the sets of the movies he produced with American James Ivory, his life and business partner of 44 years — could have been describing his approach to filmmaking. ”He reminded me of an Indian patriarch supervising the cooking of a grand meal, handing out tasks so that the family could function as a unit,” says Kazuo Ishiguro, author of the novel The Remains of the Day, on which Merchant Ivory’s 1993 movie was based. ”He was a life force for whom the word impossible had no meaning,” says Helena Bonham Carter, star of 1992’s Howards End. ”He had endless passion, and made films because he believed in beauty.”

Merchant met Ivory in 1961, three years after leaving India for New York City, and the pair soon formed a partnership that would set the standard for lavish literary-based costume dramas. Merchant Ivory Productions made more than 40 films, including 1986’s A Room With a View and 2003’s Le Divorce. At the time of Merchant’s death, he and Ivory were wrapping The White Countess. Says Ishiguro, the film’s screenwriter: ”The three-month shoot in China took a toll on his health, but he gave it everything. It’s heartbreaking he won’t see the finished [product]. It’s heartbreaking he’s no longer with us.”

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