A beautifully restored print and Greta Scaachi’s sizzling breakthrough film make this Merchant Ivory Raj saga a must

A beautifully restored print and Greta Scaachi’s sizzling breakthrough film make this Merchant Ivory Raj saga a must

Joyce Glasser reviews Heat and Dust (March 8, 2019), Cert. 12A, 129 min. (extended run at the BFI Southbank and selected art house cinemas across the UK)

If you have never seen Heat and Dust on the big screen, where it should be seen, or haven’t seen it since it was released to critical acclaim (and a Best Adapted Screenplay BAFTA), now is your chance. A beautiful, new 4K restoration of the 1983 film awaits you at the BFI Southbank and selected art house cinemas nationwide. The cinematographer was the late Walter Lassally, who won an Academy Award for Zorba the Greek, but is also remembered for Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones.

Merchant Ivory Productions (MIP) has always been associated with India, and not just because producer Ismail Merchant was born in India; or that director James Ivory felt drawn to the works of EM Forster. It was, after all, David Lean, and not MIP who took on Forster’s A Passage to India. The authenticity of Heat and Dust comes from their silent partner, the late author and scriptwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a German Jewish refugee to the UK who married an Indian architect and lived in India for nearly 25 years. Although never comfortable living next to extreme poverty, Jhabvala observed the Westernisation of an emerging Indian middle class that no doubt influenced such films as Monsoon Wedding and Bride and Prejudice. Her wide-ranging screenplays helped Merchant Ivory win six Academy Awards over a unique collaboration lasting 50 years.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s work for director/script writer James Ivory and the late Producer Ismail Merchant began in 1960 when they asked her to write the screen adaptation of her book, The Householder, which was set in Delhi. Some twenty years later, Merchant produced, and Ivory directed Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation of her Man Booker Prize novel, Heat and Dust, shot in English with Urdu and Hindi.

The film caught the zeitgeist of early 1980s Britain, sandwiched between Gandhi of 1982 and the miniseries The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavilions and David Lean’s feature film, A Passage to India from 1984.

While Julie Christie’s name is top of the marquee, Heat and Dust was the breakthrough film and first major role for Greta Scacchi (The Player, White Mischief). She not only looks great in Barbara Lane’s 1920s modified flapper costumes but is persuasive in the role of Olivia, the naïve, but open-minded, energetic and curious young wife of British colonial official, Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove).

Olivia is reluctant to join the British memsahibs – who bore her to tears – in their exodus to Simla over the blistering hot summer. Olivia is happy to face the inhospitable climate of Satipur, in central India: it is Douglas’ frequent absences, and the stuffy, narrow-minded colonials – epitomised by the racist Doctor (Patrick Godfrey) and Mrs (Jennifer Kendal) Saunders– that she cannot stand. (Of interest, perhaps, in real life Kapoor was married to Jennifer Kendal (Felicity’s sister) who was to dies of cancer within two years of the release of Heat and Dust and he never recovered from her untimely death).

Greta Scacchi and Shashi Kapoor in Heat and Dust - Credit IMDB

Greta Scacchi and Shashi Kapoor in Heat and Dust

So it is perhaps no surprise that, when the well-educated, impeccably dressed, and imposing Nawab of Khatm (Shashi Kapoor) offers to show her around ‘the real India’, she responds enthusiastically. A mutual friend, Harry Hamilton-Paul (Nickolas Grace) is a permanent guest at the palace and is even tolerated by the Nawab’s chain-smoking, domineering and all-seeing mother, Begum Mussarat Jahan (Madhur Jaffrey). Hamilton-Paul is a kind of go-between and confidant to Olivia and the Nawab, being a companion at both households. If he is a needy man, he is easy-going, discreet and non-judgmental, perhaps because he is homosexual and has come to value discretion.

The Nawab and Olivia progress from their daily sightseeing and socialising to a clandestine affair which is appears less passionate than convenient. Things get complicated when Olivia finds herself pregnant and has no idea what the baby’s colour will be. The Nawab wants an heir and what better than a mixed-race heir, but it would shame Douglas. Moreover, Nawab is suspected of supporting marauding bandits from his still independent princely state who are attacking the force of the Raj. The British are considering retaliation that would oust the Nawab.

Anne (Christie), a BBC researcher whose great-aunt is Olivia Rivers, tells this story (in flashback) with the help of an elderly Hamilton-Paul whom she is interviewing in her English garden in 1982. Anne inherited Olivia’s letters and diary and, being a researcher, decides to travel to Satipur to find out what happened to her Great-Aunt, estranged from, and lost to, the family.

It is this interwoven plot line, with Anne’s experience in India mirroring Olivia’s in an approximate, but updated manner, that is the film’s weakness. Anne is not a well-defined character and is neither particularly likeable or even interesting. She reacts passively to everything, even ending up with Chid, a tedious American sanyasi and would-be convert to Hindu mysticism, staying in her accommodation with designs on her bed. Anne’s gratuitous affair with her landlord, Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain) a civil servant married to a child-bride with epilepsy, is unconvincing – perhaps because it is so underdeveloped. There is no chemistry between the pair and affair seems to be orchestrated by Anne either to follow in the footsteps of her great-aunt or out of boredom. The sentimental and creepy ending is nothing if not contrived.

If the 1982 strand were intended to show that a woman’s lot in India had not improved much in the 50 years between Olivia and Anne, or indeed, that progress has been made, it is not persuasive. Anne is a middle-class British woman who can always go home and we do not meet many other women from 1982. How I longed to return to 1923 to explore the fascinating issue of the Nawab’s suspected collaboration with the rebels. This could have been developed into a political mystery, making the affair more romantic and the Nawab more enigmatic. We are still over 20 years before Partition, but the natives are already restless and Olivia is caught between two worlds.

You can watch the film trailer here: