Movie Review: Heat and Dust

Heat and Dust
The last Merchant Ivory movie of the summer is Heat and Dust.  And it's the best movie of the bunch.  Filmed in 1983, the film explores the mysterious 1920's transgressions of Olivia, played by Greta Scacchi, the Assistant Collector's wife.  Olivia's niece Anne, played by Julie Christie, comes back to India in the 1970's to piece together her aunt's disappearance, and ends up reliving portions of her relative's past in the process.  The movie also features Shashi Kapoor as a frustrated Nawab, Madhur Jaffrey (of cooking fame) as his formidable mother the Begum, and Zakir Hussain (of tabla fame) as Anne's landlord Inder Lal.

It's a beautiful movie about women and the choices they make in life and love, particularly choices that don't seem rational to the society they live within.  There's a great deal in the movie that I don't want to give away (especially as it's central to the plot development!), but I was particularly taken by the psychological portrait the film painted of Olivia.

Olivia and the Nawab
Olivia is a rarity; the usual British woman in 1920's India had been packed off to find a husband in the colonies after failing at the marriage market back home.  Simultaneously distressed and entranced by India, Olivia seems perfectly in love with the man she left Britain to marry.  But then she makes a series of startling choices that belie her placid surface and make her a character to contend with.  The Nawab, played beautifully as always by Shashi Kapoor, angles to humble the British in any way he can.  But in the end it's the Begum who knows, understands, and controls the playing field.

Julie Christie in Heat and Dust
As always, the contemporary era pales a bit in comparison to the historical one.  Where Olivia's choices seem calculated, Anne's seem reckless.  And Anne contends with the ever-present challenge of being ignorant of the fact that her actions affect others.  But I give the movie full credit for its portrayal of Chid, played by Charles McCaughan. McCaughan's portrayal of a westerner taking up the path of a Hindu renunciate is priceless, and it's also fittingly revealed that Chid struggles with mental stability in the mist of his spiritual aspirations.  

Overall the movie is a fascinating exploration of the British female psyche in India.  I haven't read Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's novel that the movie is based on (which won a Booker) but if it's half as good as the movie, which I suspect it is, I'd certainly recommend it.