With the world falling apart all around us, watching a Merchant-Ivory film from 1983 might, at first, sound like the dumbest fucking thing anybody could do right now. Or maybe it’d just be an understandable, comforting response to the untenable chaos of the moment — “sheetcaking,” I believe, is the parlance du jour. But let’s not judge the morality of anyone’s viewing choices in the face of current events. Let’s just note that there’s a whole lot of cathartic pain in Heat and Dust, if you know where to look for it.
In some ways, Heat and Dust (enjoying a re-release in a newly restored version) marks the precise moment at which Merchant-Ivory “became” Merchant-Ivory. When the films directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant — films rooted in the duo’s beginnings in low-budget, documentary and third-world cinema — began to settle into something grander, more literate, refined and maybe even (to some eyes) stuffy. True, the team had already done adaptations and proto-adaptations like The Europeans (1979) and Jane Austen in Manhattan (1980). But those works had a kind of fidgety leanness — an austerity and a willingness to play with structure that ran counter to contemporary prestige-pic escapism. Heat and Dust seemed, at least at first glance, to be a lot more comfortable and mainstream.
Written by their regular screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and based on her own acclaimed novel, the picture tackles a subject that had become quite fashionable in the early 1980s: the period of British colonial rule in India, a time too often treated in fiction as all decadence, exoticism and socio-political intrigue. And the movie does have a certain old-fashioned charm, a confident grace that lulls you into its world. It’s the story of two women, living in two different eras: Olivia Rivers (Greta Scacchi) is the unhappy wife of a neglectful and unimaginative British civil servant in Satipur, a town that supposedly becomes virtually uninhabitable during the hotter months, while Anne (Julie Christie), Olivia’s great-niece, is an intrepid traveler in the present day, determined to investigate her ancestor’s life — to discover what exactly happened to Olivia after she left her husband and seemingly vanished into the subcontinent.
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Somewhat predictably, a man was involved, but Heat and Dust takes its time getting to Olivia’s growing relationship with the Nawab (the legendary Shashi Kapoor), a kind of local prince. Ivory and Jhabvala seem more interested in exploring the petty concerns and rumor-mongering of British families in India, and their disdainfully detached attitudes toward the locals. One exception to that is Harry (Nickolas Grace), a snarky, artistically inclined Englishman whose close, curious friendship with the Nawab at times suggests a different kind of intimacy. (Indeed, Merchant and Ivory were reportedly drawn to this relationship as a subtle way of paying tribute to their own romantic partnership — even if, in the film, Harry and the Nawab remain mostly just close friends, and the latter eventually becomes infatuated with Olivia.)
Intercut with Olivia’s tale are Anne’s own explorations of the past and of bustling, modern-day Satipur. She spends time with the warm, middle-class Indian family that now lives in what was once Olivia’s home, and strikes up a casual flirtation with her landlord (Zakir Hussain). The appearance of Chid (Charles McCaughan), an outdated American hippie dressed in monkish garbs, who’s come to India seeking some prefab notion of spiritual truth, seems a sly comment on a different kind of colonialism, one we find in the modern era — that of the Westerners who see other cultures as mere exotic foils for their own self-growth. Of course, Chid is just an extreme variation on what Anne herself is doing; through his comical presence, Ivory and Jhabvala (gently) undercut their own protagonist.
But Heat and Dust ultimately isn’t so much about the spectacle of Westerners lost in foreign lands as it is about the cruel constraints society places on (female) desire and its consequences. What comes through most clearly is the sadness of these two women at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Though she’s unwilling to become “a proper memsahib,” Olivia’s reality is circumscribed by her husband and the expectations of the community around her. Anne’s, ironically, is defined by her determination to retrace Olivia’s steps. Too often, she seems lost in her thoughts and in the past — she lives among the people around her, but constantly maintains a kind of psychological distance.
Ivory’s particular genius is his ability to convey such complexity without overdoing it. His filmmaking is casual, unfussy; for all his reputation as a director of opulent period pieces, his camera angles and movements are straightforward, his staging of action de-sensationalized. As a result, the movie’s anger and sorrow sneak up on us. These women can’t feel comfortable or happy in a world where their actions are always under scrutiny, and we gradually sense their anxiousness. The final act finds Anne and Olivia both isolated and alone in a snowy corner of India — each still in their own timeline, but united in a desire to shake free of the world. What little contentment they’ve achieved is tempered by the fact that they’ve had to effectively abandon the world to get there. In a way, their entrapment continues.