Monday, August 28, 2017

Merchant-Ivory: Heat and Dust

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the Booker Prize for her novel of two distantly related English women who come to India under very different circumstances, but the double-narrative divided by fifty years shares a stylistic compatibility with the best-sellers of today. Yet, it was the 1983 film version that proved to be zeitgeisty, ushering in a mini-boomlet of films and television set during the British Raj (A Passage to India, Jewel in the Crown, The Far Pavilions). Adapted by Jhabvala from her novel and produced by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory’s Heat and Dust (trailer here) helped set the template for what a Merchant Ivory production meant. A fresh 4K restoration of Merchant Ivory’s breakout hit (comparatively speaking) opens this Friday in New York, as part of a double bill with Autobiography of a Princess.

Anne was always curious about her great aunt Olivia Rivers, the black sheep of the family. When she and her husband Douglas arrived in 1923, they both are genuinely devoted to each other, but something about India will have a pernicious effect on their relationship. The heat is definitely part of it. So is her questionable friendship with the Nawab, Satipur’s local royal. Publicly, the Nawab makes nice with the British, but there are rumors he is not so secretly in league with the Dacoit bandits. His intentions towards Rivers are not necessarily honorable either.

Meanwhile, five decades later, Anne the great niece retraces Rivers steps with the help of old family letters. Initially, she is quite happy boarding with the Lal family, even when “Chid,” a foolish American Hindu convert invites himself to crash on her balcony. However, Anne finds herself repeating history with her landlord, Inder Lal, despite her affection for his sickly wife.

In many ways, H&D is exactly the sort of quality literary production the Merchant Ivory brand now implies. It features most of their hallmarks, including an elegant, classically-based score from their frequent film composer Richard Robbins, but in this case, it is augmented with some traditional Indian accents provided by tabla player Zakir Hussain, who also plays Inder Lal.

He is solid in the part, as is the late Christopher Cazenove as poor, clueless Douglas Rivers. Yet, there is no doubt this film and story belong to its women characters. Neither great aunt or niece fit the mold of “memsahibs,” the British “mothers of empire builders,” who were often more socially rigid and outright racist than their husbands. They also tend to look rather matronly. That is all very well for Anne in 1982, but Olivia chafes under their petty jealousies and resentments.

As Ms. Rivers, Greta Scacchi smolders up the screen almost as much as she did in the Kenyan-set White Mischief (ironically, another story of English colonials acting badly). Yet, she finds subtle dimensions in the unhappy memsahib that elevate her above a mere Hester Prynne of the Raj. In one of her final turns as a romantic co-lead, Julie Christie’s Anne is equally seductive, but in an earthier, more grounded and mature kind of way. We can certainly believe she is her great aunt’s grand-niece. However, the charms of Shashi Kapoor’s Nawad are not readily apparent.

Ivory is a filmmaker known for his taste and refinement, but he makes viewers feel the heat of Satipur and his characters’ resulting sweat. Thirty-some years later, its cultural attitudes do not feel the slightest bit dated. Yet, the sensitivity and ambiguity of the Jhabvala-scripted Autobiography of a Princess make the two-handed tele-film ultimately more satisfying. Recommended for Anglophiles and admirers of Christie and the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala collaborative team, Heat and Dust opens this Friday (9/1) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.