This 1982 Merchant Ivory production is a lush, atmospheric period piece based upon the well written book of the same name by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who also wrote the screenplay for this film. Set in two distinct eras, colonial India of the nineteen twenties, during the time of the Raj, and the independent, freewheeling India of the early nineteen eighties, during the time when India was a mecca for disenfranchised youth, it explores Anglo-Indian relations through the power of romance. This is subtley done through the story of two women.
One story is that of Olivia (Greta Scacchi), the young and beautiful wife of Douglas Rivers (Christopher Casenove), a minor district official in colonial India. The film tells of her arrival in India, newly wed and in love with her husband, her subsequent boredom with the staid, British Colonial community, and her blossoming infatuation with the Nawab (Shashi Kapoor), a very handsome and charming, local Indian prince. It is her romance with the Nawab that is to result in a life changing action, one that would forever cause a permanent rift with Douglas, changing her life forever.
The second story is that of Anne (Julie Christie), a beautiful and independent woman, a descendant of Olivia's sister. Nearly sixty years after Olivia's transgression, fascinated by the story of the deceased Olivia, Anne goes to India, visiting those locations where Olivia had lived and those which would have been a part of her existence at the time. As did Olivia, she falls under India's spell. As did Olivia, she, too, has an Anglo-Indian love affair. Hers is with her landlord, Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain). Anne's life essentially picks up where the thread of Olivia's life left off, giving the viewer a powerful sense of de-ja vu and a suggestion of reincarnation.
This film is a beguiling story of two women from two different generations who come under the spell of India. It is is evocative of British colonial India, as well as of India of the early nineteen eighties. During both eras, Anglo-Indian relations are pivotal to the budding romances and the film is evocative of the rythyms of Indian life in all its richness and tumultuousness, as well as its lingering poverty and superstitions. Redolent of a time gone by, it is also an interesting dichotomy of the good and bad in both cultures, Anglo and Indian, and the influence that both cultures have on these two women, who are so different, yet so alike.
Julie Christie is perfect as the thoroughly modern, beautiful, free thinking, young woman who retraces her ancestor's footsteps. Greta Scacchi, in her introductory film role, is luminous as the lovely Olivia, a woman who did not let prejudice and narrow mindedness blind her to the charms of India, its people and its culture. Shashi Kapoor is perfectly cast as the handsome Indian Prince, whose veneer of culture and sophistication belies an injured pride, chafing under British colonialism. While the role of Inder Lal is well played by Zakir Hussain, there does not appear to be much chemistry between him and Julie Christie, in contrast to the smoldering chemistry there is between Scacchi and Kapoor. The seeming lack of chmistry btween Hussain and Christie is the one weakness in this film.
The film, one of the earlier Merchant Ivory productions, is beautifully shot. Gorgeous period costumes contribute to the sense of a time gone by. While the story bounces along between the past and the present, it is effectively done, as one sees the transformation of the past to its present. This is a film that will appeal to those who love period dramas, as well as those who simply love a good, entertaining story. Unfortunately, it is no longer available in video. It is, however, deserving of having its print transfered to DVD, as it is a film well worth having in one's collection.