Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the best of the Merchant-Ivory collaborations, Heat and Dust is a wonderful examination
of India through overlapping stories, one set in the 1920s, and one in the 'eighties. The critique
of the intersection of Indian and English cultures is both sharper and less melodramatic than David
Lean's A Passage to India (which is still wonderful). Contrary to what one would expect from
the filmmakers, some of the criticism of Indian ways is pretty harsh, a feeling amplified by an
excellent shorter film that's included on the disc as a welcome extra.
Julie Christie and Greta Scacchi shine as Englishwomen from different eras, coping with an alien
culture and their own feelings.
1982. In anticipation of her own quasi-research trip to India, Anne (Julie Christie)
interviews Harry Hamilton-Paul (Nickolas Grace), an elderly gentleman who knew her great-aunt Olivia,
a mem-sahib in the 1920s. Anne stays at the house of Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain) while retracing
the steps of her ancestor, who disappeared under scandalous circumstances related to the local
Maharaja of the time, The Nawab (Sashi Kapoor). Locations jump back and forth in time as Anne gets
closer to Olivia's spirit, and the social contrasts between 1920 and 1980 become more acute.
Without the burden of a grand epic to bear, Heat and Dust plays as a wonderful story about
cultural and sexual politics in change during the 20th century (you know, that long-ago time, like
1994). The typical filmic approach for material of this kind is to place a fiery and headstrong
female protagonist into a stuffy
situation such as the 'Civil Lines' (the civil-colonial administration) in India) and then give her
a contemporary, anachronistic attitude. Part of the fascination with Heat and Dust is that its
characters have few ambitions to transcend their times, and aren't aware of any social ills to
be rectified. Greta Scacchi's Olivia simply knows she's unhappy and bored and disgusted with the
stifling attitudes of the other mem-sahib women around her. Her indecision pulls her into 'scandalous'
behavior that has quite a different outcome than that shown in old Rudolf Valentino movies. Some of
the attitudes voiced by the well-meaning but ossified English overlords are pretty ugly, but most
boil down to the paternalistic disgust voiced by the outspoken doctor Saunders: the Indians are like
children, and can't fool him with their homemade abortions and other lies. The rich Nawab is
like a dangerous child who threatens order with his associations with local brigands.
Olivia's attempts to live and breathe are stifled at every turn by her fairly likeable husband Douglas
Rivers (Christopher Cazenove of Zulu Dawn), who reminds her that the eyes of servants watch
them at home, and the eyes of their unforgiving peers watch their every move in public. He's
constrained by this social vice-grip as well, attending parties to please his superiors and having
to watch everything he says in front of the District Collector (Julian Glover of Quatermass and the
Pit, The Empire Strikes Back, For Your Eyes Only) and the semi-covert political agent Major
Minnies (Barry Foster of Ryan's Daughter, Frenzy, Twisted Nerve). So it's pointless to blame
individuals when every individual is in the same trap as Olivia. As is demonstrated in the show,
Olivia's behavior breaks cultural rules on both sides.
The Nawab is a dangerous tyrant who uses his influence to compel those around him to indulge his
fancies. Harry Hamilton-Paul is so thoroughly dominated that it's easy to read sexual implications
into the relationship that probably aren't there - The Nawab has taken advantage of Harry's lack of
motivation to turn him into a 'pet Englishman' with which he can goad his colonial overseers. His
relationship with Olivia isn't particularly noble, as he uses her in exactly the same way: 'How
grand it will be to see the faces of the District Collector and others when they know."
Olivia's story goes to its logical extreme without creating melodramatic scenes - no threats, murders
or wars ensue. Julie Christie's Anne comes to a completely changed India, where the vast Palaces of
the royals are now public property and the houses of the Civil Lines have
become business offices. She can wander on her own in slacks and talk to many people, and has the
freedom to interact with a very friendly family. It's still imperfect - the family that takes her
in as a boarder has a backward attitude toward an (epiliptic) daughter that can be sourced to
ignorance, superstition and poverty. Old rules about begging Holy Men allow a bum/con man from the
states, the possibly mentally-impaired Chid (Charles McCaughan) to take advantage of the family,
while making unwanted advances on Anne.
Anne has an open mind and a willingness to let herself be changed by India, something that 'old' Harry
Hamilton-Paul warns strongly against. The interwoven stories take Anne to the same places visited by
Olivia sixty years before, creating a spiritual connection. Anne eventually travels a path similar
to Olivia's but unlike her great-aunt, remains in control of her own destiny, and what would seem to
be a pair of sad stories ends on a positive note.
Ivory and Merchant have the know-how and backgrounds to present the Indian experience of two radically
different decades with a minimum of fuss. We're educated without knowing it; it's fascinating seeing
the comparison of the ladies of the Civil Lines with the 'women in the next room' in The Nawab's
palace, ruled over by his authoritarian mother (Madhur Jaffrey,in age makeup). Although the English
authorities keep talking about deposing The Nawab for what they only suspect are his criminal ties, we
don't see them eager to make moves that might destabilize the region. We learn later that their
solution is to bring the Nawab's 'independent' state under English control.
'Some women just shouldn't come out to India.' The filmmakers and author Ruth Prawer Jhabvala do
a great job showing Olivia's character. Love doesn't have a
consistent logic, and it makes romantic sense that Olivia sticks with her Nawab even though she sees
ample proof of his criminality and realizes her own function as a colonial trophy.
Ivory also ends his story beautifully, in an atypical poetic shot very near the end that ties the
generations together, and makes Christie's character more than just a witness to the past. Like
A Passage to India, a story of heat and dust ends in the chill of the mountains, with
characters posed by windows.
In their commentary, the filmmakers proudly state that they were flattered when Christie chose their
movie over the part eventually played by Charlotte Rampling in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.
This is the far superior role, and attests to Christie's good judgment. This is a great drama.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of Heat and Dust is a masterful presentation. The enhanced
transfer does justice to Walter Lassally's fine cinematography. Some shots along the way exhibit some
instability, and it's unclear whether it's due to shrinkage (of random shots?) or an original
Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala do an on-camera interview doc, pointing out various cameos, etc. The
commentary is with Merchant and actors Scacchi and Nickolas Grace and is interesting as well. It's
no mystery that Scacchi cooperated on the disc - it's the role of a lifetime.
The really interesting extra is an entire hour-long short feature called Autobiography of a
Princess from 1975 that looks like an English television production (?). It's brilliant, a
one-act play sort of thing that sees aging man of letters James Mason visiting a deposed but
wealthy ex-Indian princess in her London rooms. She's played by Madhur Jaffrey, the mother in the
main feature. It's a problematic visit as the Princess is still completely absorbed by
fantasies of her corrupt father the Maharaja - that he was a saint, that he was framed, etc.. Just
like the Nawab in Heat and Dust, she tries to use her charm and personality to enforce
her own reality on her guest, lobbying for him to drop his literary work on a philanthropist to
exalt her father in print. Old Royal home movies are used to show the excesses of her father's rule.
Mason's character seems to have been like Heat and Dust's Harry Hamilton-Paul,
an impressionable young man who fell into a rich Indian lord's web of luxury and influence, and
isn't too proud about it. The Princess shows a BBC docu that she doesn't realize is highly critical
of her - of real deposed princes and princesses like her. The BBC subjects insist that common Indians
still revere them, while pouting about their cut-off privileges - the allowances, skiing
in Switzerland, etc.
Both shows end up being more anti-Monarchy than anti- or pro- Indian or English. They're really
enlightening. I like Lord of the Rings, but see little reason to totally immerse myself in
fantasies of that kind, when there are so many great stories to learn about that are closer to
real human experience.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heat and Dust rates:
Supplements: Commentary, interview doc, second feature Autobiography of a
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 16, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson