If Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala don't stop ripping out my dil and throwing it SPLAT onto the screen I'm going to have to stop watching their movies. And this time they messed with my head, too - and decked the whole tricky beast out in nawaby finery and 1920s party dresses. I ask you, what chance does a girl have?
The narrative in Heat and Dust flips back and forth between present day and the last decades of the Raj, both in the same location in India. In the modern day, Anne (Julie Christie) has found letters written to her grandmother by her great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi) about her life in India, beginning in the 1920s. When her husband, a lower-level official, is off working, Olivia gets to know the local community.
She's not particularly interested in the other memsaabs, preferring instead the company of the Nawab (Shashi Kapoor)
and his hanger-on Harry (Nickolas Grace).*
Meanwhile, Anne tries to fill out the story in Olivia's letters. She begins her research by interviewing Harry, now a very old man, and then moves in with a family in the town Olivia lived in. Anne's stay in India begins to parallel Olivia's as she too settles in with a host community
and also finds a companion in a flatteirng, sympathetic Indian man, her landlord Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain) (yes, that Zakir Hussain). There are some really nice visual ties as well: here is Olivia's bungalow in the 1920s
and now, when it's Inder Lal's office.
(Is the fact that Inder Lal works in Olivia's old house is a coincidence overly filmi for a movie like this? Discuss. At first I thought "neato" and then I thought "oh come on," and then when the movie ended I decided it was in keeping with the sweet and sort of romantic tone of the film.) The plot summary should end with saying that Olivia's stocking
has sweet and toe-curling bookends in both her own story and Anne's.
Anne's story is the easier one to make sense of: she's in India in search of something, and she's not entirely sure what when she starts out but seems to find her bliss or whatever by the end. In the 1920s, though, life is more complex, as life in movies seems to be when social norms prevent people from doing and saying what they really want. (The question of social norms comes up in Anne's story too; most of the major points in Olivia's life have parallels in Anne's.) All the characters want something, everybody has something ugly in them, something to color how you interpret them. Olivia is probably the least skewed, and she comes off more ignorant than anything else. Like young Lizzie Buckingham in Shakespeare-Wallah, naive Olivia has to navigate her attraction to a manifestation (and I do mean "man") of the more sophisticated and equally rule-bound Indian culture. I honestly don't think she's exoticizing the culture she finds herself in; at least, she's not exoticizing it any more than she has been kept at a distance and simplified by both the English and the Indians. The only person who really seems to be her equivalent and true friend is Harry, who's not Indian by any stretch but seems to have no use for or interest in the world of the English.
(A quick aside about "the world of the English": the 1920s story is very much focused on the English administrators and a tiny handful of the Indians who work with them - pretty much just the people you see in the dinner party picture above. No attention is paid to anyone outside this group. In the modern story, we do get a broader sense of the town and the different people living in it.)
Anyway. Motives. The Nawab is broke and grasping for cash, Olivia's husband worries about his job competency, the higher-up English officers do everything they can to minimize the threat of rebellion, and all of the women seem to obsess over what is and isn't done. At the same time, the characters' hidden agendas and run-ins with customs and boundaries lead to awkwardness that is funny to watch. Olivia has the most trouble, of course, but everyone at some points has to choose what to do with social expectations and obstacles. There are many conversations about how to behave and how to think about other people. Upon first arriving in India, at a formal event Olivia is offered a snack she can't stomach and has to make desperate faces at her husband, who mimes to spit it out in her hanky.
(I think I like this scene so much because it happened to me with a piece of barfi in a school principal's office in Amritsar.) Another of my favorites is this bit of dialogue from a paranoid memsaab's advice to Olivia when she first arrives (in the quote, "they" refers to Indian men):
It's funny on a basic level - xenopobic, emotionally unstable memsaab spouts nonsense - but it's much juicier if you recognize the actor. As Bart Simpson would say, "The ironing is delicious!" Lines like this - for example, Anne all but rolls her eyes while supposing contemporary English people move to India trailing after some guru or other - make me think that MIJ have a keen sense of humor about the stereotypes that float about in the sea of Indian-Anglo culture and relaitonships. It could be that they were also having fun with real life stories: in addition to the Kapoors' Indian-English love story, Julie Christie was born and raised in India.
But does the sense of humor guarantee they're not falling into exoticizing, demeaning ideas and depictions? I really don't know. I know orientalism is a charge frequently levied at Merchant and Ivory, and I haven't found it to hold up in their other India-based movies I've seen. Yesterday The Horror!? and I were discussing the culpability of works that present something vile and also a voice that criticizes or laughs at or otherwise seems to minimize the vileness; in his words, "having it both ways is an old exploitationer [good word, right?] tactic." For example, what do we make of Shashi's unctuous prince?
He loves the trappings of his status and the lifestyle he's had, but he has his hands full playing the Raj while agitating politically behind the scenes. Decadent, impotent dandy or clever independent? Or Anne's host family, who tries to cure daughter-in-law Ritu's unexplained illness with chickens, fire, and a pilgrimage to a holy site.
This little arc was the most troubling to me because it's presented with no information. We don't know what's wrong with Ritu, who screams and thrashes at night but seems perfectly lovely and competent during the day, and we don't know what the bowl of fire and waving a chicken over her are supposed to do; we only hear that Anne tries to take her to a specialist doctor and Inder Lal declines.
Stereotypes abound, mostly racist British officers, but I thought they were pretty clearly being criticized and poked fun at. Most of the language they use is so appalling and unsubtle that it's hard to believe the filmmakers would have them use it for anything other than easy targets. You could probalby argue they're too broad to be effective skewers, but I don't think they make sense as anything else. The Nawab's mother (Madhur Jaffrey) is another hater; she loves viewing the pomp of the English and making the ladies squirm by her pointed quesitons or shunning them altogether.
Both Indian and English characters in Heat and Dust present a variety of opinions about the Raj and about each other. Everyone in this movie has prejudices, some nastier, more ignorant, or more harmful than others.
Now that I've finished all that description, I'm not sure what the movie is about, really. It was emotional and biting while it was going, but I'm not left with any strong feelings or impressions - I was really choked up at parts, mostly those that moved at the personal level of responding to one's attachments and attractions (hence the heart-splatting, but I don't want to tell you what they are so I won't spoil the movie - just know that it tugged some strings), but I recovered immediately, unlike with the devastating Shakespeare-Wallah. I think Heat and Dust is basically about the importance of finding what/where/who makes you happy and doing/going to/being with it/them - and, it must be said, there is at least one character who embodies the potential troubles that can accompany such decisions if you buck the social norms too dramatically. I'd love to hear from someone who has read Jhabvala's Booker Prize-winning novel, which I can easily imagine has more going on and/or focuses on different aspects of the stories to create a different message overall.
* I definitely got a vibe between Harry and the Nawab. Can anyone who's read the book to speak to this?