Heat and Dust: “A dual narrative of sexual and imperial politics”

There’s an anecdote about Heat and Dust from producer Ismail Merchant in Robert Emmet Long’s 1993 book The Films of Merchant Ivory  that I’ve always liked because I think it says a lot about not only the cultural differences between the British film industry and Hollywood but also the different type of films that both industries make. It relates to the difficult matter of raising finances to make a film, as Merchant says “As usual, I submitted it to all the Hollywood studios, who politely—and not so politely declined—one executive wrote, saying, we are returning Ruth Jhabvala’s Eat my Dust. We knew we must find our financing in Europe”

I guess what I like about that is it perhaps proves (to my own inverted snobbery I’ll admit) just how disinterested American film people can be about things they cannot comprehend or conceivably produce and market for themselves. I mean, how much attention did they truly give it if they can’t even recall the name properly? Then again, if you were feeling more generous, you could argue that Hollywood just instinctively know what they can and can’t make and that this was so beyond their ken they gave it such scant regard. But there’s a smug satisfaction to be had from this anecdote too as, once Merchant Ivory secured the finances for this sumptuous 1983 film they, along with Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and David Lean’s A Passage to India (as well as The Jewel in the Crown and The Far Pavillions on TV) set about bringing a new and prosperous wave to the otherwise doldrums-beset British cinema of the 1980s that garnered international critical and commercial acclaim, not least from our Atlantic cousins who enjoyed seeing a bit of history and culture on screen. The fact that Hollywood’s ignorance meant that they missed out on making money sits perfectly well with me.

Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her own 1975 Booker Prise-winning novel of the same name,  Heat and Dust is a story of two English women’s paths to self-discovery in India, each more than half a century apart. The stories are intertwined; the first is set in the 1920s, a time when the British Raj ruled India. In her breakthrough role as ingénue Olivia, Greta Scacchi is the beautiful new young wife of Christopher Cazenove’s colonial official, who finds herself drawn to the exotic and sensual delights of India and an illicit affair with the handsome and charismatic Nawab, the ruler of the neighbouring princely state, played by Shashi Kapoor. The other story is set in the film’s present day of the early 1980s and sees Olivia’s great-niece Anne, played by Julie Christie, inherit letters that point towards some significant revelations about Olivia’s time in India. Determined to learn about her ancestor, Anne sets out to retrace her steps and piece together the jigsaw of her life, discovering much about herself along the way too when she falls for her Indian guide, Inder Lal, played by Zakir Hussain.

Bridging the two stories and timelines together is the character of Harry, played by Nickolas Grace. Inspired by A Passage to India author E.M Forster, Harry is an English gentleman and the close friend and guest of the Nawab who serves as a confidant to both Olivia and Anne. A louche homosexual, Harry’s decision to more or less ‘go native’ is one that is disapproved of by his fellow Englishmen who are there to wield the colonial whip within the district, but he is nevertheless tolerated because of the diplomatic channels he brings about between them and the Nawab they secretly wish to depose. Harry’s homosexuality is clear, but never actually spoken of out loud, and the relationship he shares with the Nawab remains deeply enigmatic as a result. However, when Harry becomes temporarily bedridden, his ill health serves as a pretext for Olivia to visit him at the Nawab’s opulent palace, thus serving as a conduit for their own subsequent romance which becomes complicated when she falls pregnant with, what she strongly suspects to be, the Nawab’s child.

Illness is something that casts a shadow over the film. As Noel Coward once said, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun’ and the British live in constant fear of succumbing to the titular ‘Heat and Dust’; losing their sanity and, perhaps worse, their sense of British identity and decorum. It is a fear entirely absent in Olivia who, when faced with the opportunity to go to Simla to avoid the extreme heat of a Satipur summer, categorically refuses, preferring instead to stay her husband’s side. A beautifully delicate, yet strong-willed woman, Olivia is intelligent and genuinely interested in India and seemingly unperturbed by the concerns and petty morals of those around her, which ultimately lead her to an illegal abortion. This is paralleled in the present day context when the equally authentic Anne’s fascination with India is contrasted with her fellow traveller Chid (Charles McCaughan) who, as young American Hindu convert scrounging his way along the hippy-trail in a high-handed and obnoxious manner, serves as a contemporary, post-Empire example of the West mistreating and misunderstanding India. History repeats itself here too, as Chid subsequently falls ill with dysentery as Anne falls pregnant with Lal’s child and finds herself in the same predicament as her great-aunt.

The split narrative may work well in Jhabvala’s original novel, but satisfaction proves elusive on the screen. Ostensibly, the best parts of the story are those set in the 1920s, which means you feel disappointed whenever the film chooses to return to the present day and, despite the symbiotic nature of both Olivia and Anne’s stories, the tone still feels somewhat uneven. At its best, the dual narrative not only highlights the similarities between both women and experiences, but also the differences too – their subsequent choices making for an intriguing story of sexual, as much as imperial, politics.

Nevertheless, Heat and Dust is a beautiful, lavish movie from director James Ivory and a good example of the period prestige films that proved so successful for the British film industry in the 1980s, appealing to both open-minded, younger audiences who wanted to study British past with more scrutiny and interest than had previously been afforded, and to those older, twinset-and-pearls audiences who looked back upon the days of the empire as halcyon and who no doubt hoped that a vote for Thatcher would one day bring them back.

A lesser, earlier example of this kind of film from Merchant Ivory is also included on this 2-disc Blu-ray set from the BFI; Autobiography of a Princess is a 1975 hour long drama-documentary written, once again, by Jhabvala. It stars Madhur Jaffrey (who also appears in Heat and Dust, aged-up to play the Nawab’s chain-smoking, poker-faced mother) as an Indian princess exiled in 1970s London following Indira Gandhi’s socialist reforms of the previous decade. We meet her on the anniversary of her father’s death, a special day in which she annually entertains her late father’s English secretary and tutor with cine-footage of the glory days of the Raj and royal India. James Mason co-stars as the old Englishman, and he is effectively a cinematic predecessor for the character of Harry in Heat and Dust. James Ivory mixes his dramatis personae with genuine archive footage from the colonial days and documentary footage of Indian Maharajas reflecting on their experiences and their present situation in exile. The rest of the extras include several reminiscences with Ivory, Jaffrey, Scacchi and Grace as well as archive shorts depicting India in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, trailers and an audio NFT interview between Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala from 1992.

HEAT AND DUST (+AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A PRINCESS) IS OUT NOW ON BFI BLU-RAY

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