Heat and Dust was originally released in 1983, brought to life by the famous team of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory, along with novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It explores India as a country, as well as the nation’s unique relationship with the British. But the film also leaves you longing for an alternative story, as you wish that the creative team chose a different path.
The film explores two similar stories, one from the 1920s, and one in the 1980s. Anne (Julie Christie), a historical researcher, becomes obsessed with letters from her great aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi) who details her experiences in India with her husband Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove) and the Nawab of Khatam (Shashi Kapoor) during the 1920s. Anne then continues her obsession by travelling to India where she finds herself encountering similar experiences to her great aunt.
The opening can cause a slight shock to the audience because it goes back and forth between the time periods without warning, leaving you confused for a brief moment. However, it then settles into a nice groove effortlessly interchanging between Anne and Olivia’s stories. Locations are brilliantly used to make the transitions smoother, giving audiences a cinematic way of explaining that the story is now back in the 1980s.
Great visuals also allow this smaller independent style film to inherit a grand feel that we would usually associate with blockbusters like an Indiana Jones and Star Wars, while also capturing the qualities and culture of India.
We see the real tensions that existed between the British and Indian’s in both the twenties and eighties. In the twenties we see one of the ladies explaining how all “these Indians” want is to bed a British woman. That same thought is then expressed in the eighties, only this time, by an Indian as Anne’s landlord Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain) explains to her that people see their relationship as sexual.
Ultimately, the true strength of Heat and Dust lies in the performances, especially when you consider the mannerisms and dialogue from Olivia’s time had the potential to come across as pretty comical due it being a rather outdated way of behaving. Bollywood superstar Shashi Kapoor does well balancing the Nawab’s kind and more sinister side, and for longtime fans of Kapoor, it will be a strange feeling watching him in a somewhat villainous role as he was famous for his “good boy” image in films like Deewaar (The Wall) and Kaala Patthar (Black Stone).
Greta Scacchi as Olivia is without a doubt the shining star of the film. She carries the weight of the film on her back and captures you with her mesmerising beauty. Greta expertly portrays this transformation of a simple, kind, and loving young British woman to a confused and tragic figure that struggles with her every decision.
Unfortunately, Olivia’s innocence and loving qualities are also why Heat and Dust left me wishing for a more traditional romantic narrative, which didn’t involve her losing those qualities towards the end. You want to root for Olivia, but by the end, it’s hard to justify her actions. Anne’s fascination with her great aunt also would have been more touching had we gotten a simpler story about a boy and girl fighting for their love.
As typical as a narrative about a boy and girl fighting for their love can be, ‘indie’ films trying to stand out by explicitly talking about and showing sex is just as typical and passé. It’s an unfortunate trap so many filmmakers fall into, they focus so much of their time detailing erotic stories and visuals in a manner big budget productions will not, and in their minds that is how you branch out. Going down a more traditional route would have led to a stronger end product, invited a larger audience, and perhaps fared better at the U.S box office because of it.
Heat and Dust may split audiences, as some may appreciate the unconventional approach chosen by the filmmakers. And although audiences will fall in love with the character of Olivia, a traditional romantic tale may have enhanced that connection and provided us with a more satisfying conclusion.
Dir: James Ivory
Prd: Ismail Merchant
Scr: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Cast: Julie Christie, Greta Scacchi, Shashi Kapoor, Christopher Cazenove, Madhur Jaffrey, Zakir Hussain
DOP: Walter Lassally
Runtime: 130 mins
Heat and Dust returns to the big screen on March 8th and will release in 4K at BFI Southbank and select cinemas.