The humble film that marked the Merchant/Ivory transition from small indie projects to a decade-long run that defined the genre of modern period films began as a Booker Prize winning novel by the third member of the iconic trio. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the only person to win both the Oscar and the Booker Prize, was German-born and among the last refugees to flee Nazi Germany for London in 1939. After the war, she relocated to India, pursued writing, and married an Indian architect. In 1975, the same year she won the Booker for Heat and Dust, she relocated to New York City.
This bit of background adds some background colour to the origins and intentions of the film. Jhabvala witnessed first hand the draw of India on Europeans, and the class and race conflicts therein, but most of all, she examines the roles of women – including all of the double-standards and social expectations – in two stories set twenty years apart.
Upon reading her great-aunt Olivia’s diaries, Ann (Julie Christie) is determined to find out more about her unusual relative who left England for India in 1923 to join her newlywed husband. Told in flashback, we learn that her new life, both in her marriage and in her assumed place the social structure of the Raj, triggers a massive change in Olivia (Greta Scacchi). While she is entranced by India, she is suffocating from boredom and an increasing distaste for the attitudes and expectations of colonial life, and eventually submits to an affair with the Nawab of Khatm (Shashi Kapoor), who appears to be suspiciously close to a rebellious bandit effort that is taking action against foreign domination.
Back to the present (1982) – Ann traces Olivia’s journey. She finds a family in the same area where Olivia’s story unfolded, encounters an American “truth-seeker” on a pilgrimage, and falls for the married head of the house. From this point on, complications explode in both stories due to family alliances, scandal and pregnancy.
Despite the fact that the production’s coffers emptied before the film was completed, James Ivory works his usual magic, dressing-up the stories of two women’s leaps into an unknown (to them) world. His years with Ismael Merchant in India provide him with hundreds of minute details that make their experiences tangible. It’s through Scacchi and Christie’s performances that we get to experience the same journey, but through different times, first-hand. While the differences are apparent, so are the similarities – the technology of travel and general lifestyle may change, but social attitudes are a slower progression. One thing is static, however – the patriarchal dominance of women by men had not progressed much in the fifty-year time difference that separates the two stories.
It’s a gentle film, deceivingly insightful on many levels beyond the gender and political issues, created by a writer, director, and producer directly familiar with the setting and attitudes that drive the story. We see the British dominance during the period of the Raj as an attempt to define itself by establishing itself in an exotic location. This is not a far cry from the tourist in search of “himself” who adopts Eastern dress and mores in search of the perfect mysticism he can tidily pack away as some sort of souvenir. We see illicit affairs not so much as a sexual act, as an act of rebellion – a last ditch effort to define oneself without interference from established society’s ideal of morality. Both create untrue pictures of actuality as the experiences originate with the foreign newcomer, not the place they have co-opted for their purposes.
Unfortunately, Greta Scacchi’s career never lit up to equal the lumens emitted by Julie Christie in her heyday, perhaps because the roles that suited her style simply didn’t exist anymore. The one exception was White Mischief, colonialism, again, only this time in Kenya. Heat & Dust was Julie Christie’s brief return to the screen in a leading role, kicking-off a pattern of intermittent re-appearances that only remind us of her dominance in the Sixties and early Seventies. It is likely that, in addition to having a chance to work with Ivory, the fact that she was born and raised in India and had the subtext of the stories in her bones was a primary lure for her to accept the role.
Heat and Dust was Merchant/Ivory’s biggest hit to date internationally. Britain was in the throes of nostalgia for the period of Raj India – Lean’s A Passage to India was about to break on the big screen and, on TV, The Jewel in the Crown would dominate. The film bombed in the U.S. – Ivory suspects that Reagan America was fearful of a poverty-laden “downer”. Thoughtful, multi-layered adult dramas were to be avoided at all cost. Regardless, the Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala trifecta flourished from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties.