A Passage to India (1984)
Director: David Lean
Writer: David Lean
Cinematographer: Ernest Day
Producer: John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin
by Jon Cvack
Reading about E.M. Forster’s book, there’s a fascinating debate between postcolonial and feminist scholars as to just how offensive the book is. Postcolonial scholars believe it portrays an Indian culture that’s acquiesced to Britain’s hegemony; in this case, following white characters as they galavant amongst the oppressed local Muslim and Hindu people, a few of which they befriend, though not without the disdain of the majority of local Brits. Feminists believe that the central female character Adela Quested and her potential mother-in-law reflect two women who’re willing to abandon the chains of patriarchy and journey into an alien world where they can assert their ideas. Others believe it’s a classic and important story, written by one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. While I haven’t read the book, I was left with a position somewhere in the center-critical position; seeing a film that for its time (written in 1924) was a wildly progressive piece, in which some of the problems as compared today, while justified, might slightly outweigh the story’s benefits. What pushed me over is that should the book be similar in the plot as the movie, I did take significant issue with Adela’s character; serving as a woman who was - in the movie - far too easily manipulated by men to defend a position she didn’t believe.
David Lean has made some of the cinema’s most epic stories. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Dr. Zhivago (1965), which I feel silly for mentioning, but for anyone that’s brainfarting, it’s important to have an immediate grasp of these texts and their scope. Less well-known though brilliant movies include Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Summertime (1955; and highly underrated film overall); demonstrating his transition from mid-budget movies (albeit making small stories feel massive) and into the great and epic stories he’d later create. While writing this I have the one feature of his remaining, Ryan’s Daughter (1970), which he made between the five-film periods from 1957 thru 1984 period. A Passage to India concluded it, having been unavailable for years until a recent release on Blu Ray arrived a few months ago.
I knew it’d fail to meet the perfection of Kwai, Lawrence, or Zhivago, but I figured what he missed in the story he might make up for in visuals; having a near-flawless filmography far behind him. Instead, the story proved underwhelming; feeling as though the flawed politics and criticism of the book contributed to its ineffective narrative. What worked was a bit too offensive, and all else fell short of what other filmmakers like Malle and Renoir have explored with their own portrayals of India and its rich culture. It felt like a man who, perhaps like Forstureer, failed to grasp why the story might have failed to work.
Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and her potential mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) arrive in India and immediately meet up with Mrs. Moore’s politically ambitious son Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers) in Chandrapore, which is experiencing a people's uprising for independence. When a local school teacher Richard Fielding (James Fox), Adela and Mrs. Moore meet the Indian doctor Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), a widower who agrees to show them around the area, introduced by local school superintendent and Aziz’s friend Richard Fielding (James Fox) who encourages both women to dive into Indian culture.
Ronny disagrees with the friendship, as the current caste system treats Indians as second class citizens to the British ruling class. His mother Mrs. Moore disagrees with his ruthless pursuit of politics, in which his prejudices are rewarded, if not encouraged in order to preserve British hegemony. Mrs. Moore and Adela ignore his admonitions, shocking him when they go so far as to place their feet in a swimming pool of a local philosophy professor - who I’m shocked to find out is actually Alec Guinness; both for not at all recognizing the man, and more importantly, that somehow David Lean thought painting on a brown face in 1984 was a good idea; especially for a film that’s hoping to explore racism. It’s all the worse in a scene taking place minutes after when we go to a party where the local Indians are more or less segregated from the white British people; standing in the grass while the Brits sit at their table, resting on elevated platforms. It’s not even as though David Lean failed to capture the bigotry - or why having Guinness paint his face brown to play a Hindu - as during one scene, while passing a group of Indian women, a character mentions that they don’t understand English; only for a couple of the locals to mention the three others languages they speak in addition to Hindi.
Later Aziz takes Mrs. Moore and Adela on a tour of the Marabar Caves - a fictional destination (with its own Wikipedia page), which are known for their haunting ability to echo the speaker's words. In a series of cryptic shots, cutting between basecamp, a tour guide-led group, Aziz and Adela take off on their own. Ronny later arrives at the scene though Adela becomes separated and spooked; especially upon seeing Aziz at the cave entrance, looking in. Lean cuts to some birds flying and then Adela runs down a hill, falls into some cacti and soon accusations Aziz of raping her
The problem is that when you read about what happened in the cave from the book, you realize that Lean completely failed to capture the details or the mystery. Ultimately, we never know what happened in the book in which Ronny arrives earlier and confesses his love for Adela who fails to have similar feelings. She then heads off and meets up with Aziz, filled with lust and making a pass which he rejects; still agonizing over the death of his wife. She then races out and falls into the prickly plants; definitely assaulted, but what happens remains a mystery. Aziz and Ronny blame the tour guide, but nothing is ever proved. The caves serve as a fascinating metaphor for the story, both reflecting the boiling point that would lead to the Indian Nationalism that would overthrow the country, while the infamous echoes reflect the self-reflection of both Mrs. Moore and Adela who grasp India injustices.
The cave remains the film’s strongest scene, but watching Ryan’s Daughter which better abides by Lean’s usual style, creating more memorable images in its first forty minutes than in all of A Passage to India; almost feeling as though it failed to grasp even the most novice concepts that E.M. Forster explored within my cursory look. Lean seemed to take a bit too much of a side in his version, particularly in how he shot Aziz standing at the doorway looking in toward Adela - moments before she came running out; removing the ambiguity.
So begins the meat of the film as Aziz is allegedly innocent and wrongfully accused. All of Britain gets behind him, and we see another terrifying example of the popular tribal justice that carries on almost every other week of the month. The white people all assume that Aziz is guilty while the Indians protest against another use of colonialists subverting their justice system. The trial is a bit of a farce. The judge fails to maintain order while Aziz’s lawyers become overwhelmed with emotion, storming out in protest of the bias. Ronny disowns his fellow country club friends and the Indian people begin demonstrating.
After reading my first couple books on American Reconstruction, I’m realizing that the bias in these types of mainstream trials have existed as long as any marginalized group has fought for justice. The cases serve not just for the immediate guilt or innocence of any one person, but as a reflection of the society at large. Having just finished The Run for His Life, the OJ Simpson trial might have been one of the most popular examples of this bias.
It’s tough to differentiate whether it was Lean or Forster who dropped the ball in this section. Adela is relegated to a helpless persona; manipulated by the men in power in order to promote their agendas. In the end, it’s not the Indian lawyers who win the case, but Adela finally fessing up to the truth she’s been holding in. I suppose it reflects an issue existing within any culture; in which too few people speak up for the injustices they witness, no matter how wrong they are.
In the end, Aziz is acquitted, bitter against his new white friends and demanding monetary damages from Adela. Ronny leaves, though years later, he returns. Aziz still harbors resentment, until finally forgiving Ronny. We never know get to see what happened to Adela, leaving the end feeling empty; as though it could have continued on but didn’t.
Again just a quick glance at the book’s summary, we see that Aziz was suspicious that Ronny was leaving to go marry Adela - the girl that betrayed him - vowing to never befriend another white person again. While Ronny returns and attempts to reunite with his old friend, Aziz resists, declaring that they cannot be friends until India is free and independent; a particularly harsh conclusion against what sounds more nuanced in the book.
This would be the last feature David Lean would make until his death seven years later. At only 71 years old at the time and with a tremendous body of work behind him, I’m not sure what went wrong. Whether studios interfered or Lean finally met his match with source material. Reading about the book, I was left wanting an updated version; seeing it as an important story for our current times. The director would have to look no further than Lean’s other work for inspiration.
BELOW: Some old school white privilege (though mostly because there's slim pickings on YouTube)
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