Dir.: James Ivory; Cast: Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, Shashi Kapoor, Christopher Cazenove, Zakir Hussain, Charles McCaughan, Patrick Geoffrey; UK 1983, 132 min.
Heat and Dust was the twelfth (of twenty-seven) collaborations between director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Based on the Booker Prize winning novel, the screen adaptation is a break with the social realism of the trio’s earlier features such as Shakespeare Wallah (1965). Its visual opulence made it by far their most successful feature at the box office to date.
Heat and Dust is a lush evocation of the sensuous beauty of India, sashaying between the 1920s and the 1980s in an epic of self-discovery, starring Julie Christie, Shashi Kapoor, and Greta Scacchi in her breakthrough role, with a strong supporting cast
When BBC researcher Anne (Christie) inherits the writings of her great aunt Olivia in 1982, she travels to India to find out more about the ‘scandal’ Olivia caused in 1923. The narrative tells the parallel story of both women. Olivia was married to the naïve and conventional Colonial Civil Servant Douglas Rivers (Cazenove), who had no clue about Olivia’s emotions. Bored by the stifling narrow-mindedness of the ex-patriate community, Olivia soon meets the sophisticated maverick Nawab (Kapoor) who, in his role as Viceroy, runs his private army, often indulging in violence on a grand scale. Olivia falls in love with him, but when she gets pregnant, decides on an abortion for fear of the obvious repercussions. Running away from the British hospital and the reactionary Chief Medical officer (Geoffrey) after the botched surgery, she flees to Kapoor, spending the last years of her life in a villa in the mountains where Kapoor, now deposed by the British, rarely visits her.
Anne traces Olivia’s steps, meeting on her way a young boisterous American would-be-monk (McCaughan), who is only interested in sleeping with her. But his body cannot cope with the foreign lifestyle and diet: Anne puts him into a train back to the USA. In her rooming house, she falls in love with Indor Lai (Hussain), her landlord. She too becomes pregnant, wanting to abort the baby at first, but changing her mind and planning to give birth in a hospital, near the villa, where Olivia lives out her lonely days.
Very much influenced by the writing of E.M. Forster – whose novels would be filmed later by Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala – Heat and Dust is a not so nostalgic look back to the days of the Raj, carried by the spirited Scacchi, who injects a feeling of joie de vivre to the role, growing increasingly melancholy. The 1980s segments are comparably less remarkable. But the feature belongs to DoP Walter Lassally, who not only shot the New English Cinema (A Taste of Honey, Tom Jones) but also won an Oscar for Zorba the Greek. The languid but vivid images of British rule in India would go on to inspire a generation of cinematographers, taking their cue from Walter Lassally. Heat and Dust, whilst not as stunning as the more mature Howards End, is nevertheless a trend setter: The legendary David Lean finished his career with the Forster adaption Passage to India in 1984. AS
NOW ON CURZON WORLD AS PART OF THE James Ivory series.