In some ways, 1983's Heat and Dust marks the moment at which Merchant-Ivory "became" Merchant-Ivory. 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 rife with elegance, 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 British civil servant in Satipur, a town that supposedly becomes 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.
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 American hippie 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.
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.