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HEAT AND DUST

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Julie Christie, Shashi Kapoor, Greta Scacchi, Nickolas Grace, Madhur Jaffrey
Director: James Ivory
Audio: English stereo
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, full-frame 1.78:1
Studio: Home Vision
Features: Commentary, interview with the filmmakers, trailer, Autobiography of a Princess
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: November 11, 2003

"I may not be here.  If it gets too boring, I'll run away."

Film *** 1/2

Heat and Dust (1983) marks the cinematic return of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory to the Indian subcontinent, the setting for many of their early films.  While Merchant and Ivory collaborated on India-themed films in the 1960's, the 1970's saw them experimenting alternatively with contemporary films and with adaptations of English literature.  Heat and Dust is, in a sense, the culmination of those two decades' worth of filmmaking experience.  Based on the 1975 award-winning novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust is simultaneously a film about contemporary-day India and about the idealized golden years of British India.

Heat and Dust juxtaposes these two stories together.  The modern tale follows the voyage of Anne (Julie Christie), a young woman drawn to the allure of India and the mystery of an ages-old scandal that once involved her distant relative, Olivia (Greta Scacchi).  Suitably, the second tale is Olivia's story, revealing the circumstances surrounding her seduction by British India.  Both stories possess a common link in the self-discovery that transforms each English woman in the exotic landscapes of India.

Merchant and Ivory have explored this premise before of a woman traveling abroad to India to discover love and passion (in their 1970 film Bombay Talkie).  However, Heat and Dust is a superior film, not only boasting beautiful photography and evocative native music but also some of the finest performances in any Merchant Ivory film up to that time.  In fact, Heat and Dust would foreshadow the stylizations that would make the Merchant Ivory production team an international success just two years later for A Room with a View.

Heat and Dust introduces Greta Scacchi to the silver screen in her debut film role as Olivia Rivers.  Olivia is the stunningly beautiful young wife of Douglas Rivers, a British junior officer stationed in India.  She is a newlywed, having just arrived weeks prior on her first journey beyond the borders of England.  Olivia is vibrant, blooming with curiosity and wonderment, and for her, India represents a dream of the exotic, of the unexplored territory.  However, she feels stifled by the societal pressures to conform to British norms here in India.  As the wife of a British officer, she is essentially confined to home, unable to roam the streets unaccompanied or even wander casually about at home ("you shouldn't let the servants see you like this," Douglas tells her at one point when she steps out for a breath of morning air).  One day, when a local Indian prince extents an invitation to the Rivers for a dinner engagement, Olivia is delighted at an opportunity for some entertainment and socializing, but she is instructed by her husband to turn down the offer, on the grounds that "it's very irregular."  As Douglas's superior has not been invited as well, it would not be proper protocol for the Rivers to attend the prince's dinner alone.

To pass the days away, Olivia has little else to do besides play on her piano.  As the oppressive heat of the Indian dry season extends its grasp over the countryside, Olivia finds her energy dwindling: "I never knew days could be so long."  Olivia is a woman filled with spirit, but the boredom of her life in India is slowing draining her of vitality.  When the heat of the dry season grows progressively worse, Douglas even contemplates sending Olivia off with the other mannered and dull British wives to cooler environs temporarily, though she pleads, "I'll be bored.  I'll be hot, irritable, but please, don't send me away from you."

Olivia's proper and unimaginative husband, in essence, does not recognize Olivia's needs or desires.  His inattentiveness ultimately drives Olivia from him.  As Heat and Dust opens, we see Douglas arriving home one day to find it quiet and empty.  Olivia is gone.  She has left him.  Douglas, abandoned, sits alone on their bed, his only recourse remaining in his soft, unheard weeping.

The nature of the inevitable scandal which ensued is the intrigue that, many years later, brings Olivia's great-niece, Anne, to India.  The modern tale opens with Anne wandering the shops and wares of contemporary India.  For a long time, Anne has been entranced by the wondrous letters sent over the years from Olivia to Anne's grandmother, Olivia's sister.  Those letters revealed numerous private anecdotes and tales of romance, painting a seductive image of British India's yesteryears.  Anne has brought the letters with her to India in her desire to unravel the mystery surrounding Olivia's disappearance.  In the process of tracing the path of her great-aunt's life, Anne undergoes a passage of self-discovery herself, a transformation not so dissimilar from that once experienced by Olivia.

Heat and Dust is not a suspense mystery film, so Olivia's fate is easily discernible.  In one of her husband's myriad duties as a British representative, the Rivers attend a ceremonial ritual given by the powerful Nawab (Shashi Kapoor in a solid performance), a local Indian prince.  Many other officers and ambassadors and their wives attend as well, but the Nawab notices only Olivia's beauty.  He is immediately smitten.  The Nawab wishes to become more acquainted with Olivia, and her husband's frequent absences afford the Nawab ample opportunities to invite Olivia for pleasant outings - a picnic in the countryside, a visit to his palace, for instance.  Olivia even befriends Harry (Nickolas Grace), the Nawab's English court companion, and Harry's presence in the Nawab's palace provides Olivia an excuse to begin visiting the Nawab regularly.

The true nature of the Nawab is one of subjectivity.  Many of the British officers see him as a liability, a royal who in his declining power and wealth does little to halt the recent wave of countryside raids and robberies; he may even be partially to blame for these raids.  Olivia, however, does not see this aspect of the Nawab's personality and instead sees a man of vast romantic charm and chivalrous manners.  Perhaps both views of the Nawab are correct, or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between.  Regardless, the Nawab offers the friendship and companionship in this exotic land that Olivia lacks.

Even Harry, constantly homesick for England, succumbs to the Nawab's charisma and stays on in his court.  Harry is the living link between the film's two storylines.  In the modern tale, it is an older Harry who recounts tales of the Nawab and his stately court and of Olivia's captivating beauty to Anne.  It is Harry's stories which provide the final impetus that sends Anne on her voyage to India. 

As with Olivia, Anne is likewise changed by her experiences in India.  She visits many of the former homes of the Nawab.  She traces the path of her great-aunt through India, from her first few months in the heartlands of the Nawab's realm to her final, peaceful days in the mountains.  At one point, Anne befriends a character who observes, "I know what you think; you think you're Olivia, her reincarnation."  Anne eventually takes on an Indian lover, as did her great-aunt, although her ultimate decision and her fate will be different than Olivia's.

Heat and Dust is a beautiful, lyrical film that paints a lush image of Royal India.  Jhabvala, for her screenplay, received Britain's National Film Critics Award and a British Academy award.  Heat and Dust, in fact, helped to create a new wave of interest in the 1980's for films about India (other notable films of this period included the Oscar-winning Gandhi, David Lean's A Passage to India, and the TV miniseries The Jewel in the Crown).  Most importantly for Merchant Ivory, Heat and Dust was a tremendous critical and commercial success, and its stylizations anticipated those of the English adaptations which would soon garner even greater international acclaim for Merchant and Ivory.

This is a film that will captivate many viewers.  For fans of the Merchant Ivory period films, Heat and Dust is another jewel in the crown.  For moviegoers unfamiliar with the Merchant Ivory productions, this film is an excellent starting point.

Bonus Trivia - Madhur Jaffrey, quite good as the Begum, the Nawab's queen mother, was actually Shashi Kapoor's age at the time of filming and had previously portrayed his mistress for a role in an earlier film!

Video ***

Heat and Dust is presented in a widescreen 1.78:1 transfer derived from the original 35mm interpositive.  Many instances of dirt, debris, and scratches have been removed from the picture, although enough still remains to remind us that this is not a new film.  The image is fairly sharp with vivid colors and clear details.  There are no significantly intrusive compression defects to speak of.  Overall, the picture quality of Heat and Dust is fairly good.

Audio ***

Heat and Dust is presented in 2-channel Dolby stereo.  The audio quality is pleasing, and dialogue is always clear.  The ambivalent buzz of modern India is well represented in this soundtrack.  The period music also provides a nostalgic evocation of an India of by-gone days.  The only odd thing about the soundtrack is a mildly persistent echo effect with dialogue.  However, this echo effect vanishes upon switching from a five-speaker sound system to the TV's ordinary sound system.  That's really bizarre.

Features *** 1/2

Heat and Dust is the fourth film in Home Vision's Merchant Ivory Collection.  This particular DVD contains the film's original trailer as well as a feature-length commentary track provided by producer Ismail Merchant and two actors from the film, Greta Scacchi and Nickolas Grace.  It is a relaxed and friendly commentary and certainly worth listening to.

Conversations with the filmmakers is a continuing series of interviews with Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who wrote the screen adaptation for the film from her own novel.  There is a fond, easy-going banter between these three talented filmmakers that belies the many years of familiarity and collaborative efforts among them.  This interview session also includes a few comments, filmed separately, from the film's composer Richard Robbins.

The highlight of the extra features, however, is the 57-minute short feature Autobiography of a Princess.  Screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala offers a few words of introduction about this film, which was created in 1975, coincidentally the same year her novel Heat and Dust was published.  Autobiography of a Princess explores some of the same themes as Heat and Dust, albeit from a different perspective.  This short film centers upon an afternoon tea party between an Indian princess (Madhur Jaffrey again) and Cyril (James Mason), her father's former English tutor.  The tea party is an annual ritual held at the princess's London apartment in which the two sit together and reminisce over the golden past of Royal India.  Much as in the film My Dinner with Andre, this film unfolds essentially in real-time while Cyril and the princess trade personal anecdotes or remembrances.  The princess also shows many old home movies which she has preserved over the years, though one gets the impression that perhaps Cyril has seen these films many times.  Most importantly, both characters discuss their own personal feelings about the Maharaja, the princess's father.  Each in his or her own way loved the Maharaja, but while the princess embraces the past nostalgically through rose-colored memories, Cyril recalls his years in India with a greater sense of disappointment and disillusionment.  To this end, Autobiography of a Princess is a penetrating and thought-provoking look at the contrasts between the old India and the new.

Lastly, inside the DVD case, there is a foldout that contains two articles by film historian Robert Emmet Long.  The first article provides interesting history into Heat and Dust's production, mentioning at one point how production on film was nearly halted due to lack of funds before an enthusiastic endowment from the Rothschild estate allowed the film to be completed.  The second article discusses the short film Autobiography of a Princess, and Long makes a case here that James Mason provides one of the finest performances of his career in this film.

Summary:

Heat and Dust represents a transitional point for Merchant and Ivory.  After this film, the Merchant Ivory team would move away from the India-themed films of their early years and gravitate towards the English period films that would bring them worldwide acclaim.  Nevertheless, Heat and Dust remains one of their most vibrant and quietly touching films about romance and self-discovery.  Fans of the Merchant Ivory films will certainly want to check out this film!