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Heat and Dust (1982)

Courtesy of Merchant Ivory Productions Ltd

Main image of Heat and Dust (1982)
35mm, 130 min, colour
DirectorJames Ivory
Production CompanyMerchant Ivory Productions Ltd
ScreenplayRuth Prawer Jhabvala
ProducerIsmail Merchant
CinematographyWalter Lassally
MusicRichard Robbins

Christopher Cazenove (Douglas Rivers); Greta Scacchi (Olivia Rivers); Julian Glover (Mr. Crawford); Susan Fleetwood (Mrs. Crawford); Patrick Godfrey (Dr. Saunders)

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The experiences of two young English women in India, two generations apart, in the 1920s and 1980s. Anne, a young historical researcher, inherits letters written by her great aunt Olivia, and becomes obsessed with their revelation of an exotic and sensual past.

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Heat and Dust (d. James Ivory, 1982) is one of the most important films in the Raj genre, for its close examination of the interaction between the British and the Indians in the last days of the Raj. By deftly intercutting the action between the 1920s and 1980s India, Merchant-Ivory and screenwriter Jhabvala (on whose novel the film is based) observe how some perceptions have changed while others have simply transferred themselves to the successors of the British.

When Mrs Rivers (Greta Scacchi) arrives in Raj India, she is told by Mrs Saunders (Jennifer Kendal) how Indian men "want only one thing". Mrs Saunders ascribes this to the overabundance of spices in the Indian diet. Later, Mrs Rivers is warned about appearing in front of the domestic help in her night clothes, as unrevealing as they may be. While in 1980s India, Inder Lal is clearly disturbed when Anne (Julie Christie) waits for him outside his office to hitch a ride on his scooter, because he is worried that their hitherto innocent relationship will be perceived as sexual. Jhabvala correctly infers that the middle-class Indian male is the social, if not financial, successor of the Nawab. Both the Nawab and Inder Lal, as played by the urbane Shashi Kapoor and Zakir Hussain, are well-spoken, charming men who, if anything, are more British than the British in their demeanour.

Ismail Merchant and James Ivory are well-placed to look at British-Indian relationships because they are respectively of Indian and Western origin. Having said that, their visuals, as shot with an excessive use of the soft filter by Walter Lassally, tend to overstress the contrast between Indian exoticism and British stuffiness. Indeed Heat and Dust and later films like Immaculate Conception (d. Jamil Dehlavi, 1991), The Warrior (UK/France/Germany/India, d. Asif Kapadia, 2002) and Bandit Queen (India/UK, d. Shekhar Kapur, 1994), with their tobacco filtered visuals have tended to show India to the Western eye in a certain stilted, unreal manner, creating a "Channel Four look". Jhabvala's screenplay, lucid as it is, tends to draw both British and Indian characters in broad brushstrokes, with few nuances. All this does not subtract from the film's real achievement, which lies in its wry but affectionate study of Britain's complex relationship with India.

Naman Ramachandran

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Video Clips
Production stills
Christie, Julie (1941-)
Foster, Barry (1927-2002)
Glover, Julian (1935-)
Ivory, James (1928-)
Lassally, Walter (1926-)
Merchant, Ismail (1936-2005)
Scacchi, Greta (1960-)
Asian-British Cinema