Heat and Dust: A Tale of Two Ladies, by David Bax
If you are unfamiliar with words like memsahib, James Ivory’s Heat and Dust, newly restored and in New York and Los Angeles theaters Friday, will provide, at the very least, some anthropological insight. As written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, adapting her own novel, we get a look at India both 30 years before and 30 years after its independence from Britain, replete with colorful specificities like “God Save the Queen” being played on traditional Indian instruments. Beyond that, Ivory provides us two stories about two separate women that compare and contrast two different—yet similar—time periods. Unfortunately, one of them is far more interesting than the other.
Greta Scacchi plays Olivia, a British woman who moves to India in the early 1920s to be with her husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove), who has taken a position in the government. From the opening scenes, we know that Olivia will abandon Douglas and flee to the countryside to live out the rest of her years in anonymity. In 1982, Olivia’s great-niece Anne (Julie Christie) comes from England to follow in her relative’s footsteps and find out what happened to her. These are our two point-of-view characters (so much so that the abundant Hindi spoken in the film goes completely unsubtitled) as we encounter everything from bloody revenge tales to randy monks to the garter-related difficulties of sex in the 1920s.
There’s actually a third timeline in the film, comprised of Anne’s pre-departure interview with Harry Hamilton-Paul (Nickolas Grace), Olivia’s only surviving friend. Between Olivia’s letters to her sister and Harry’s answers to Anne’s questions, Heat and Dust’s voiceover narration is far too insistent and the most glaring signifier that this is an adaptation of a novel.
Olivia is a woman frustrated by the gendered social mores of her situation. In her case, these come less from the Indian culture and more from the English one. Olivia is constantly forced to watch from afar as the men enjoy a musical performance or discuss local politics. Anne, though, finds that 60 years and independence don’t mean things will be any easier for a woman. She is assumed to be in a sexual relationship with any man with whom she speaks and is forced to spend far too much of her energy rebuking the advances of Chid, an entitled, supercilious American monk (and the film’s most fascinatingly obnoxious creation).
Here we find Jhabvala’s and Ivory’s thesis, which boils down to some version of “the more things change, they more they stay the same.” India is different than it was under British rule and Britain is a different country than the one that occupied India to begin with. Yet the same issues keep arising; respect or disrespect for religious differences, marriage as a societal rite and expectation, etc. Heat and Dust even questions some of the assumptions implied by progress. In the film’s present day, Anne is tormented by Chid while Olivia, at least, gets to be romanced by a prince.
Heat and Dust’s mistake is the protraction of Anne’s narrative into more than the framing device it logically ought to be. There’s simply more conflict in the 1920s story, what with the natural friction of the British trying to transpose their way of life whole cloth into a culture with such deep roots (not to mention all the pretty costumes). Next to that, Anne never stood a chance.