Ismail Merchant, producer of such movies as ''Howards End'' and ''A Room With a View,'' may be the world's busiest filmmaker these days.
His new movie as a producer, ''Jefferson in Paris,'' has opened and work has started on ''Surviving Picasso,'' which he's also producing -- Anthony Hopkins plays the legendary painter. His latest project as a director, ''The Proprietor,'' begins shooting this summer with Jeanne Moreau in the leading role.
Over a chatty lunch near his New York headquarters recently, however, the subject that excited Mr. Merchant most was his new career as a film preservationist. For the past three years, he has been leading a crusade to restore and reissue the movies of Satyajit Ray, widely recognized as India's most brilliant screen artist. Ray was responsible for placing Indian art cinema on the world map, in the process winning prizes in film festivals all over the world.
While this project was partly inspired by Merchant's roots in India, where he was born and raised, its real momentum grew from his deep respect for the achievements of Ray, who died in 1992, shortly after receiving a special Academy Award for lifetime achievement.
That honor was also initiated by Merchant, who enlisted director Martin Scorsese to help him lobby the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Ray's behalf.
''I feel I'm in the cinema business because of masters like Ray,'' says Merchant, who freely acknowledges the late filmmaker's influence.
''It gives you satisfaction to think that what you are doing in your own work has a blessing from someone like him.''
The first nine restored movies have just begun a four-month engagement at a theater not far from the Manhattan offices of Merchant Ivory Productions, where Merchant and partner James Ivory have created such successes of their own as ''The Remains of the Day'' and ''Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,'' among others.
The series will travel across the United States in weeks to come, and Merchant hopes that eventually all Ray's films -- celebrated for their eloquent images of everyday Indian life and their compassion toward characters as ordinary as they are fascinating -- will be newly available to moviegoers around the world.
Merchant's relationship with Ray goes back to 1962, when Ray helped with the final editing of ''The Householder,'' an early Merchant Ivory picture. Two years later he contributed the music score of ''Shakespeare Wallah,'' the popular comedy-drama that established Merchant and Ivory as world-class filmmakers. Affection between Ray and his New York colleagues remained strong from then on, and Merchant calls ''In Custody,'' his own debut as a feature-film director, an ''homage'' to his longtime friend.
Merchant's admiration for Ray is rooted less in nostalgia than in active appreciation for the living value of his movies. ''They speak a human language,'' he says. ''It's a language of the mind and soul, which connects with the basic human emotions that are deep in all of us, whether we're Indian or American or whatever. They have a feeling of humanity that is universal and extraordinary. Every time I see a film of his, I am overwhelmed. It's as if someone has given me a reward.''
When it came to preserving Ray's work, it was monetary rather than aesthetic rewards that Merchant had to seek. One of his first steps was to interest the motion-picture academy in the campaign. Then he embarked on the challenge of raising $1 million to get the project rolling.
''We've gone begging to everybody,'' he says cheerfully, ''and we've put our own money into it. We would make 30 or 40 calls and get just one call returned.... There is no real return on this kind of investment. It's a labor of love and passion.''
Originally slated for completion in 1994, restoration of the first nine movies went about 12 months over schedule, largely because material in storage vaults had deteriorated under India's extreme climatic conditions. ''We had to get [missing] footage from the four corners of the world,'' reports Merchant, ''and it took a long time before we saw light at the end of this tunnel.''
Now that he's had first-hand experience with the rigors of film preservation, Merchant says more preemptive action should be taken to prevent important films from deteriorating in the first place.
''If the work of the great masters, like [Jean] Renoir [son of the painter Auguste] and [Akira] Kurosawa, is to be remembered,'' he says, ''there has to be some effort at preserving it. When you make a film and there is a profit, you have an obligation ... to put some of that profit aside for restoration. If you make a huge [success] like 'Forrest Gump,' you could put $25 million aside without a blink of an eye. That huge profit means the public is supporting the film, so you should use some of it for future generations.''
This is the spirit that animates Merchant in his ongoing support of Ray's films. ''I'm giving back what I've received from the people,'' he says.
''I feel we have a debt to our society, to our culture, to the world, to the cinema, to the younger generation. We should give them something that will be profound in their lives.''
* The retrospective of Satyajit Ray's films is sponsored by Merchant Ivory Productions in partnership with Sony Pictures Classics. Films include the extraordinary ''Apu'' trilogy ''Pather Panchali,'' ''Aparajito,'' and ''The World of Apu'' -- and ''Jalsaghar,'' ''Charulata,'' ''Two Daughters,'' ''Devi,'' ''The Big City,'' and ''The Middleman.''