Day the Earth Caught Fire - Artwork by Mister G

Heat and Dust

Day the Earth Caught Fire - Artwork by Mister GDirector: James Ivory / Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala / Editing: Humphrey Dixon / DP: Walter Lassally / Score: Richard Robbins

Cast: Christopher Casenove / Greta Scaachi / Julian Glover / Susan Fleetwood / Patrick Godfrey / Jennifer Kendal / Shashi Kapoor / Madhur Jaffrey / Nickolas Grace / Barry Foster / Julie Christie / Zakir Hussain / Charles McCaughan     

Year: 1983

Port Out, Starboard Home…


For a spell of two decades or so, films carrying the ‘Merchant-Ivory’ brand assumed an oft-parodied ‘seal of quality’. With a run that began in-earnest with Heat and Dust, audiences came to expect a few emergent staples of the pedigree. Their productions were prestigiously cast, sumptuously mounted and unexpectedly ‘true’ in their exploration of human emotions (thanks to a string of judiciously chosen adaptations of classic novels).

As a Director, James Ivory had as many hits as misses but, somehow, his business & life partner, Ismail Merchant, kept the enterprise solvent with a deft fluidity bordering on the miraculous. The third – and oft-unheralded – member of their film-making triumvirate, was writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It was Jhabvala, who adapted those novels to deserving acclaim. Yet ‘Dust was something different, with Jhabvala adapting her own, 1975 Booker-winning novel. That it took the best part of another decade to reach the screen, is almost a fast-turnaround in the film business…

Glasses‘Dust features two time-schemes running in-parallel. One, is set in Imperial India, circa 1923 and charts the turmoil caused by the arrival in-country of Olivia Rivers, the fresh, naïve young wife of an experienced British administrator. That would be Douglas Rivers; a figure steeped in a gossipy clique revolving around polo matches, country clubs and summer retreats to the cooler hill station at Simla.

The other schema is set today, as we follow Olivia’s Great Niece Anne (a glowing Julie Christie) as she retraces her Aunt’s footsteps. Life presents Anne with a choice once faced by her rebellious ancestor, but whereas prudence and conformity once ruled, the younger woman is free to make better choices…

We begin in The Past, with Rivers: the Unfortunate Party in the whole affair. A stock-character possessing a blithe indifference to his wife’s needs, Rivers is played by Christopher Casanove: an actor I’ve seen too little of, to form an informed judgement. But Casanove is fine here, bringing a tight, chilly reserve to a thankless part. We see him visit the local hospital, where his colleague – the odious Dr. Saunders (Patrick Godfrey) – has just informed him, that his wife has discharged herself. Rivers returns home: she’s not there.

Ivory then cuts dramatically – following the template established in Jhabvala’s novel – to a typically bucolic English country house. It’s today. Anne’s inside, interviewing a surviving member of that circle; a witness to all that went before. Trained as a researcher in the BBC, she’s tracked-down Harry Hamilton-Paul; Nickolas Grace is the only actor to play a character across the two time schemes. 

GlassesWhen next we see her, Anne’s in India herself, finding digs in the same town where all this happened sixty years earlier. Her landlord’s office, is in the same bungalow once used by the Rivers’; the Post Office, is what used to be that same hospital. As Anne re-reads a pile of letters sent from Olivia to her own Grandmother, so Ivory uses this opportunity to show us Greta Scaachi for the first time as Olivia. Scaachi makes a luminous, indelible impression as she breaks the Fourth Wall and recites one of those letters to camera: to us, as she takes us into her confidence. 

It’s the only time Olivia will do this, but it’s an important step for Ivory’s film to take, for he’s effectively giving us permission to ‘tag along’. What follows, is a personal tragedy & liberation of-sorts and with that single artistic decision, Ivory is putting down a marker. The narrative that follows might be conventionally presented, but it’s not just Olivia who we trust now: it’s the entire film. 

We believe.

More than that, Ivory & Jhabvala are in lock-step, recognising that the film adaptation must dispense with such indulgent wanderings as afforded by a novel (or review!). ‘Dust boasts a large ensemble cast and key facts must be established going-in, so that we can pick up those subtle narrative cues, without feeling either lost or patronised. The film achieves that goal with effortless style.

Key to proceedings, is an un-requited attraction between feisty Olivia and the local ruling Prince, The Nawab (a suave turn by Indian superstar Shashi Kapoor). They meet, briefly, at a palace reception; The Nawab captivated by this English woman’s naïve charm and lack of pretension; in stark contrast to the other Englishwomen. The arrival of this shooting star into The Nawab’s circle doesn’t go unnoticed. First to express interest, is The Nawab’s mother, The Begum; a bejewelled, chain-smoking dowager.

In a picture-stealing masterclass, The Begum is given life by Madhur Jaffrey in a scarcely believable performance, that left this reviewer wanting to see her in a picture of her own…

GlassesThe other key witness to the unfolding shenanigans, is the younger Harry. Gamely played by Nickolas Grace across the two schemas, Harry’s based on a pair of true-life literary Englishmen (one being none other than E. M. Forster – a rich source of material for Merchant-Ivory). Such characters ended-up taking lucrative positions as private secretaries to Indian royalty during the Raj. The deal was simple: their employers got an authentic slice of refined English gentility in their royal Courts, with all the access to London that’s implied. For their employees, an exotic spell in sunny climes and a chance to both reinvent themselves and kickstart moribund writing careers.

As far as ‘Dust is concerned, Jhabvala wrote Harry as a gay character, in-love infatuated with The Nawab, who sticks by him, even when dark rumours swirl about The Nawab’s criminal sidelines. Knowing – or being resigned to the fact – that his devotion can only be one-sided, leads Harry to help his paramour, by acting as go-between to Olivia. He’s complicit from the beginning, but why? Because he’s a sensitive soul and can see how he can use his position to make everyone happy; that is, everyone but himself: especially once compatriots begin questioning his own motives for staying…

Olivia’s miserable, because despite her protestations to the contrary, she now sees the reality of being the wife of a dull bureaucrat: in India, of all places. Vivid colour & ‘real life’ await. But the British, for all their qualities, can’t assimilate. Life for the ruling classes of the Raj, is little changed from what they might enjoy back home in Surrey and for Olivia, that’s not enough. Like Harry before her, Olivia’s eyes have been opened to sensual possibilities. Little wonder that feathers are ruffling amongst the bottled-up Memsahibs.

The Nawab, too, is miserable, because an early arranged marriage to a much younger girl ended with her ‘running away’, never to be seen again (to The Begum’s evident dismay). He’s also bored; trapped in a gilded cage, devoid of spontaneity: look at the playfulness with which Ivory shoots the ‘musical cushions’ sequence. Thanks to the extras on the disc, we now discover this to be the last, spontaneous shoot of a busy day; the five minutes before daylight gave-way. Yet in the film, it has a scripted perfection. Of course The Nawab would want to play this game: it reminds him of a happy childhood.

Olivia is a proxy here, for all those playmates that time – and life – put beyond reach.

GlassesAs Olivia falls from grace amongst ‘her’ people, so her stock also falls with The Begum and others. Not exclusively over what occurs, but for the chaotic potential and unwelcome interference from a distant London, already sensing trouble from their vassal state. Olivia then, is an ‘agent of chaos’ in the stuffy lives intersected by her own trajectory. One might view her as a character ‘out of her time’, which is why there’s a poetic justice to the arc pursued by Anne in the Present. 

Anne has to weigh the vacuous, tortured ramblings of backpacker-gone-native Chid (Charles McCaughan) against her landlord Zakir (given gentle, warm life by famed percussionist Inder Lal). As Anne’s outlook expands, her emotions undergo a similar awakening to Olivia’s. The wheel turns full-circle at the end, with another last-minute shot that’s eerily poetic and affecting. All that has been, has been remade anew. 

GlassesIt’s a beautiful film, at times; designer Wilfred Shingleton works miracles at dressing sets split between two time-schemes. His achievements on a meagre budget just reek of class. A word also, on the work of costumier Barbara Lane, who deploys evident relish with the rich Indian textiles at her disposal. The film was photographed by Walter Lassally, who seems to be using different filters for each time period; the Present Day looks brighter, somehow. Harsher, as if to romanticise the Past. It’s an effective look.

‘Dust then, is a beautifully presented salad of ingredients. It might not be the heartiest meal you’ll ever have, but its goodness is there for all to savour, awaiting contemplative reflection. Little wonder, that it was to forge such a crowd-pleasing recipe for Merchant-Ivory. If ‘Dust is the entrée to the most successful phase of their output, pictures such as Howards End (1992) and Remains of the Day (1993) form a cineast’s banquet if you’ve the time.

My dear young man. Your body is not made to live the life of a Holy Man.

Heat and Dust  Triple Word / Score: STERLING / SUMPTUOUS / SENSUOUS / NINE

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