Past and present cultures blend in Merchant Ivory’s “Heat and Dust”
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
“HEAT AND DUST”
Blu-ray and DVD; 1983; R for nudity, profanity and drugs; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube
Best extra: Recent interview with actors Greta Scacchi and Nickolas Grace
THE NOW legendary teamwork of director James Ivory, the late producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala resulted in one of their most successful and entertaining films with “Heat and Dust.”
Comprised of flashbacks to 1920s India and the present day (in this case, 1975), it’s the intertwining stories of two Englishwomen’s love affair with the subcontinent. In the flashback, Olivia (Greta Scacchi) is a young newlywed who arrives in India to join her civil servant husband, but who in time becomes the object of gossip and scandal when she falls for an Indian royal “nawab” (Shashi Kapoor). In the modern story, Anne (Julie Christie) is a journalist researching the life of Olivia, who was her great-aunt, and retracing her steps as she becomes entranced with a vastly different India.
This Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray 4K restoration (1.66:1 aspect ratio) looks beautiful and softly atmospheric, especially in the flashback scenes. Skin tones are natural, colors are rich and saturated, and there is plenty of depth in both indoor and outdoor settings. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also very fine, with sound effects perfectly balanced, dialogue always clear and the original score, by Richard Robbins and Zakir Hussain (who also plays Julie Christie’s Indian lover) is just right, with its seamless combination of Western and Indian elements.
Cohen Film piled on the extras over two discs, including a few that originally appeared on the 2003 Criterion Collection DVD, such as the commentary with Ivory, Merchant, and Jhabvala, and a discussion about the film among the three.
Another extra is a short Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala film from 1975 called “Autobiography of a Princess,” starring Madhur Jaffrey and James Mason, and considered a kind of companion piece to “Heat and Dust.” Also included is “Merchant Ivory’s Royal India,” a 2017 conversation between Ivory and writer/director Chris Terrio; an onstage Q&A with Jaffrey (who also acted in “Heat and Dust”); and an illustrated booklet with recent essays by Ivory and film scholar John Pym.
Also find an excerpt for the 2003 interview, which is in standard-def; the recent interviews are presented in HD. The conversation between Scacchi and Grace, who began their close friendship during the production of “Heat,” is particularly enjoyable. When Scacchi was offered the role of Olivia, she had never acted in a film before, nor had she heard of Merchant and Ivory. She recalls how excited she was to see Julie Christie on the set for the first time: “She seemed like a mirage to me.”
Grace, who had been with the Royal Shakespeare Company previously, was cast after Merchant and Ivory saw him in “Brideshead Revisited.” He was thrilled at the prospect of flying to India for the job. Scacchi calls Olivia “the best role I’ve ever read” and praises Jhabvala for her “sensitivity for understanding each character … we feel they are real people.”
Both actors note Ivory’s willingness to trust their instincts, never telling them what to do, and making them feel comfortable if they disagreed with something in the script. Ivory, says Scacchi, “starts from a place where he loves actors … he’s interested in seeing what we bring.” Scacchi and Grace also applaud Merchant for the way he managed to gain access to interesting locations, such as old decrepit palaces, and then oversaw their transformation into lavish sets.
Scacchi says “Heat and Dust” launched her film career and, with great pride, recalls Jhabvala telling her, “You were the perfect Olivia!” Merchant and Ivory, she adds, were always willing “to put newcomers into central roles … without thought as to whether or not they were bankable stars.”
- Peggy Earle