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Heat and Dust

Heat and Dust
Merchant Ivory / Home Vision Entertainment
1983 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 133 min. / Street Date November 11, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Julie Christie, Christopher Cazenove, Greta Scacchi, Julian Glover, Patrick Godfrey, Shashi Kapoor, Madhur Jaffrey, Nickolas Grace, Barry Foster, Zakir Hussain
Cinematography Walter Lassally
Production Designer Wilfred Shingleton
Art Direction Maurice Fowler, Ram Yedekar
Film Editor Humphrey Dixon
Original Music Zakir Hussain, Richard Robbins
Written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her novel
Produced by Ismail Merchant
Directed by James Ivory

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 camera problem.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, interview doc, second feature Autobiography of a Princess
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 16, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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