Heat and Dust

UK 1982, 130 mins
Director: James Ivory

+ intro and Q&A with Adrian Garvey, Film Historian

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Speaking of a shrine once sacred to Muslims, a character in Heat and Dust wryly reflects how it is now equally sacred to the Hindus: ‘Everything gets mixed up together in time in India.’ The whirligig of time is at the heart of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short but complex novel from which James Ivory and Ismail Merchant have drawn one of their best films. The idea is simple. Anne, a young Englishwoman of today, becomes intrigued by the mysterious story of her great aunt Olivia, the first wife of Douglas, who had been a civil servant – a district ‘collector’ – in India in the 1920s. Encouraged by the reading of Olivia’s letters to her sister Marcia, Anne determines to visit India and learn the secrets of the scandalous life which had led to Olivia’s divorce from the upright Douglas more than half a century before. The film divides itself equally between Anne’s modern quest and the reconstructed life of colonial India in the 20s, weaving a complicated but illuminating pattern out of the domestic and political intrigues. As a meditation on time, or colonialism, or national character, or on fashions in religion, philosophy, or medicine, or on the immutabilities of sex, Heat and Dust is as wise as it is unpretentious.

The resonances set up by the constant leaping of the gap between the two periods are tactfully used to sustain rather than interrupt the film’s rhythm. There are obvious dangers of glibness in such opportunities: the drawing room of Dr and Mrs Saunders’ villa in the Civil Lines is now the Satipur Post Office. The breadwinner of the family with whom Anne lodges, Inder Lal, works in an office which was once the preserve of the lonely and bored Olivia; Douglas’ quarters are now the town hall. But these ironies are understated and their delicacy is a tribute not only to Ivory but to the work of the production designer Wilfred Shingleton. Architectural adaptation occurs at every level except the highest. Inder Lal takes Anne to visit the Nawab’s palace 15 miles outside the town. It is still magnificent, but a magnificent shell. The guide shows them reluctantly round a shuttered mausoleum. In this gloomy shrine to vanished splendour, Inder Lal offers more than friendship to Anne, which, for the moment, she declines.

And what is the hidden correspondence here? Why, of course, the very heart of the mystery, for Olivia’s secret, eventually known to the world, was to have fallen in love with the princely Nawab and to have been obliged, by both communities, to have an abortion. Not that the Nawab himself had demanded it. Far from it. It is one of the pleasant complexities of the piece that, while the Nawab sees the birth of a son to the wife of the British District Collector (he has no doubt that the child will be his, or that it will be a boy) as an affirmation of his virility (his own wife having proved barren), his mother, the impressively regal Begum, regards the event as a disgrace to be prevented at all costs. The ironies are more extensive still, however. The British authorities are convinced that the Nawab is in league with local bandits, the dacoits; and that his illegitimate offspring has been conceived as a revenge on the British colonial presence. Thus the poor unborn creature becomes the symbol of multiple incomprehensions.

The outcome is seen, thankfully, in terms of human and personal joy and misery rather than as collective political guilt. No Aunt Sallys are set up, but an extensive and sympathetic review of all our foolishnesses is the focus of the film. Ivory seems at his most relaxed for some time, as if returning to home ground. The quality of observation smoothly matches that of the novel. We warm to the perfect balance of sympathy and witty distance as the bored, imaginative but unformed Olivia is drawn into the Nawab’s net. But this is to caricature the way in which the Nawab is himself conceived: he is as much drawn into hers. For all his pride, savoir-faire and princely splendour, he is endearingly naive and impressionable in those areas where it hurts to be vulnerable. He is as much seduced by this innocent as seducing. These two are the heart of whatever bald generalisations we want to make (and the film forbears to) about the ways in which the two nations, the coloniser and colonised, have fallen in and out of love with one another.

There are differences between the book and the film. On the whole they are differences of emphasis. Major Minnies has no time for ‘Our Friend’ when he (the Nawab) indulges the banditry of the dacoits. But he acknowledges that ‘he is’ – with relish and regret – ‘a Prince’. Minnies is given to quoting couplets of Urdu poetry which speak to him of other, softer dimensions, of a life not of spirit and sense as a soldier knows, but of spirituality and sensuality which a soldier must resist. There is less of this major in the film. There is less, too, of that other ‘dimension’. The films of Ivory and Merchant have sometimes been found wanting in wholeheartedness. Their good taste has seemed, from time to time, to make them turn aside from the extremes of degradation or exaltation. Here for instance they avoid any mention of some important elements in the book: the suttee (the enforced suicide of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre) which provokes riots that Douglas is obliged to put down; or the fact that one of the treatments meted out to Inder Lal’s epileptic wife is the application of a red-hot poker to her feet and arms; or the physical decay of the old peasant woman whom Maji and Anne tend in her dying hours. These are symptomatic omissions and might be defended.

What is less defensible is the absence of a final note of aspiration in Anne’s chronicle, which robs the film of part, at least, of that other dimension towards which she has been honestly stumbling. Anne’s sojourn in the mountains ends the book: ‘I’m impatient for it to stop raining because I want to move on, go higher up. I keep looking up all the time, but everything remains hidden. Unable to see, I imagine mountain peaks higher than any I’ve ever dreamed of; the snow on them is also whiter than all other snow – so white it is luminous and shines against the sky which is of a deeper blue than any yet known to me. That is what I expect to see. Perhaps it is also what Olivia saw: the view – or vision – that filled her eyes all those years and suffused her soul.’

It would be hard to match the depth and simplicity of this prose. But if there is one regret to record against this excellent film it is that Ivory has not quite given us a glimpse of the invisible mountains, but has, diffidently, perhaps, or embarrassedly, lowered his eyes at the last minute. Otherwise there is nothing to reproach, especially in the performances of Greta Scacchi as Olivia, Julie Christie as Anne, Christopher Cazenove as Douglas and, brilliant in his Englishness and his Indianness, Shashi Kapoor as the Nawab; nor the photography of Walter Lassally which does equal justice to the design, the landscape and the interiors, both of the buildings and the people.
Gavin Millar, Sight & Sound, Winter 1982/3

Director: James Ivory
Production Company: Merchant Ivory Productions Ltd
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Associate Producers: Rita Mangat, Connie Kaiserman
Production Co-ordinator: Shama Habibullah
Production Manager: Peter Manley
Location Manager: Deepak Nayar
Production Assistants: Nancy Varden Berg, Piyush Patel
Assistant Directors: Kevan Barker, David Nichols, Gopal Ram
Continuity Clerk: Jane Buck
Replacement Continuity Clerk: Renée Glynne [uncredited]
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Urdu Dialogue: Saeed Jaffrey
Hindi Dialogue: Harish Khare
Based on the novel by: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Director of Photography: Walter Lassally
Assistant Photographers: Tony Garrett, Rajesh Joshi
Editor: Humphrey Dixon
Assistant Editor: Mark Potter Jr
Production Designer: Wilfrid Shingleton
Art Directors: Maurice Fowler, Ram Yedekar
Set Dresser: Agnes Fernandes
Costumes: Barbara Lane
Costume Assistant: Mary Ellis
Make-up: Gordon Kay
Make-up Assistant: Mohamed Amir
Title Art: Eyre & Hobhouse
Titles: Camera Effects
Music Composed and Conducted by: Richard Robbins
Flute: Pandit Chaurasia
Sarangi: Sultan Khan
Sitar: Nisar Ahmad Khan
Percussion: Zakir Hussain
Piano: Michael Reeves
Synthesizer: Mick Parker
Singer: Ameer Mohammed Khan
Associate Music Director: Zakir Hussain
Conductor: Harry Rabinowitz
Sound Recording: Ray Beckett
Sound Re-recording: Richard King
Sound Editor: Brian Blamey
Assistant Sound Editor: Tony Bray

1920s. In the Civil Lines at Satipu
Christopher Cazenove (Douglas Rivers)
Greta Scacchi (Olivia Rivers)
Julian Glover (Mr Crawford)
Susan Fleetwood (Mrs Crawford)
Patrick Godfrey (Dr Saunders)
Jennifer Kendal (Mrs Saunders)
The Palace in Khatm
Shashi Kapoor (The Nawab)
Madhur Jaffrey (The Begum)
Nickolas Grace (Harry)
Barry Foster (Major Minnies)
Amanda Walker (Lady Mackleworth)
Sudha Chopra (chief princess)
Sajid Khan (dacoit chief)
Daniel Chatto (Guy)
1980s. In Satipur Town
Julie Christie (Anne)
Zakir Hussain (Inder Lal)
Ratna Pathak (Rita, Inder Lal’s wife)
Tarla Mehta (Inder Lal’s mother)
Charles McCaughan (Chidananda, ‘Child’)
Parveen Paul (Maji)
Jayant Kripilani (Dr Gopal)
Leelabhai (Leelavati)

UK 1982
130 mins

Miller’s Crossing
Tue 1 Aug 20:40; Sat 12 Aug 15:20; Mon 14 Aug 18:10
Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklanas afton)
Wed 2 Aug 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Tue 22 Aug 20:45
The Night of the Hunter
Thu 3 Aug 20:50; Sat 26 Aug 18:10; Tue 29 Aug 20:50
The Bigamist
Fri 4 Aug 20:45; Wed 9 Aug 18:00 (+ intro by Aga Baranowska, Events Programmer)
3 Women
Sat 5 Aug 20:30; Sun 20 Aug 18:25
La Peau douce (Silken Skin)
Sun 6 Aug 18:30; Thu 24 Aug 20:45
In the Mood for Love (Huayang Nianhua)
Mon 7 Aug 18:10; Fri 18 Aug 20:45; Fri 25 Aug 18:20
Charulata (The Lonely Wife)
Tue 8 Aug 20:35; Wed 16 Aug 18:00 (+ intro by Professor Chandak Sengoopta, Birkbeck College, University of London)
Brief Encounter
Thu 10 Aug 18:30; Sun 20 Aug 13:20
Merrily We Go to Hell
Fri 11 Aug 18:20; Wed 23 Aug 18:15 (+ intro by author and film journalist Helen O’Hara)
Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon
Sat 12 Aug 20:40; Wed 30 Aug 18:10 (+ intro)
Mildred Pierce
Sun 13 Aug 15:40; Mon 21 Aug 20:45; Mon 28 Aug 15:10
Beau travail
Tue 15 Aug 20:45; Mon 28 Aug 18:30
Red River
Thu 17 Aug 20:20; Sun 27 Aug 15:20
Blue Velvet Sat 19 Aug 17:45; Thu 24 Aug 18:10; Thu 31 Aug 20:35

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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