The three widely acknowledged masterworks by those virtuosos of British period pieces, director James Ivory, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and producer Ismail Merchant, are “A Room With a View,” “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day.”
The most acclaimed, Oscar-honored films by the American director, Indian producer and German-born Jewish writer who married and moved to her husband’s native India were exercises in restraint, manners and romantic/sexual repression, adapted from the novels of E.M. Forster and a clever modern practitioner of his style, Kazuo Ishiguro.
But a newly-restored re-issue of their 1983 classic “Heat and Dust” is back in theaters to make the case that the “Holy Trinity” of literary adaptations might well be a quartet.
“Heat,” from a Booker prize-winning novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter Jhabvala, touches on themes, settings and secrets — things “just not DONE, my dear,” or things best not said out loud in the polite company of the day — familiar to any Forster fan.
The film came out in the flurry of British film and TV projects wallowing in the nostalgia for The British Raj, the Empire’s rule of India, along with “The Jewel in the Crown” and “A Passage to India” (another Forster adaptation, this one by David Lean).
And seeing “Heat and Dust” anew brings its contrasts with the other works sharing its setting into sharp relief, and perhaps explains why this film is lumped in with the more Indo-centric and lightly-regarded films of this famed production team, which got its start with “Shakespeare Wallah,” “Bombay Talkie” and “The Guru.”
Greta Scacchi, in her first English-language starring role, is Olivia, an English newlywed new to India. She’s just arrived in a rural Satipur to be with her civil servant “collector” husband (Christopher Cazenove) when we meet her.
That marriage did not end happily, but with a mystery. Olivia fled the man. And in the film’s fictive present, the granddaughter (Julie Christie) of Olivia’s sister, a restless BBC researcher, has arrived in-country to experience India for herself, retrace the life Olivia lived that she shared, in letters, with her sister, and maybe fall under the nostalgic spell of The British Raj herself.
In just over two meticulously detailed, leisurely hours, “Heat” takes us into the India of the past, where unhappy, bored and over-heated Olivia finds her only true connections in India are a chatty, outspoken and probably gay British “go-between” Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the ostensible ruler of this province who likes Harry. The Anglicized Nawob (Shashi Kapoor) is a dashing, rich and handsome man with a hint of ruthless cruelty about him. He delights in telling his English dinner guests about the massacres his ancestors carried out while his mother (Madhur Jaffrey) and her ladies in waiting grill the new “memsaab” (wife of a man of authority) on her life.
Back in the present, Anne (Christie) experiences similar culture clashes — chattering Indian women (and men) wanting to know why she isn’t married, how can she stand not having any children, etc.
Her landlord (Zakir Hussain) is a handsome, helpful flirt who guides her, much as others guided Olivia back in the day, through a land of strange foods, oppressive heat and alien spices, where you do not, even today “drink the water.” Anne also has tapes she made of the one surviving man who knew Olivia, Harry, whom she interviewed before departing.
The film touches on the too-familiar themes of British racism and Indian resentment, a hatred mixed with a desire to emulate their “masters.” Even the Nawob is sure to entertain his guests with a bagpipe corps playing “God Save the King,” and it is he who makes the “To the King/Emperor” toast at dinner.
The ex-pat community’s doctor (Patrick Godfrey) may treat one and all, but he’s filled contempt for “those people” you suspect he calls “wogs” behind their backs.
Olivia faces all these “You cannot let them SEE you like this” and “I really DO know best” strictures on how to treat “them.” Anne learns, first-hand, what Olivia was told way back when, that for all the social/culture/behavioral mores limits the Brits imposed, Indian culture was and can be even more suffocating and conservative.
Ever seen the prim, not-quite-puritanical “love scenes” of a Bollywood picture? There you go.
But that gets at the fundamental shortcomings of “Heat and Dust.” The mystery has no urgency, and its solution is one of the great anti-climaxes of cinema.
And for all the talk of murderous heat and how one simply MUST away to the mountains in the summer months if one is female and doesn’t wish to go MAD, well, it doesn’t look that hot. “A Passage to India” let us see characters perspire, and the overripe, overheated repressed sexuality of that film sweats right off the screen.
The subtext story of tensions, riots and possible treachery of the Nawob are given short shrift in favor of forbidden picnics and gossip over gin and tonics. The entrance of an annoying “seeker” pilgrim (Charles McCaughan) into Anne’s world adds no sexual tension to that half of the story and only highlights the “Eat, Pray Love” guru-mystic cliche that became India’s calling card in the years just after The Beatles went there.
There’s nudity and sex, but the filmmakers, 35 years ago, weren’t able to give the feared “ultimate crimes” of that age — miscegenation, illicit pregnancies and abortion — any sting.
Every world that Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala immersed us in was fascinating, be it the India of a traveling company of British actors (“Shakespeare Wallah”) or “Jefferson in Paris” or the sexual frustrations of the “Downton Abbey” era service classes in “The Remains of the Day.”
But sometimes, they got lost in their settings and could not bear to trim their tales for the sake of dramatic clarity or dramatic drive.
Thus it was with “Heat and Dust,” which recreates a time, a place and a scandal, but fails to deliver that scandal’s heat and pathos.
MPAA Rating: R, sexual situations, nudity
Cast: Greta Scacchi, Julia Christie, Shashi Kapoor, Christopher Cazenove, Zakir Hussain, Nickolas Grace, Charles McCaughan, Julian Glover
Credits: Directed by James Ivory, screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, based on her novel. A Cohen Media Group release
Running time: 2:13