Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Passage to India (1984)

A Passage to India is my contribution this week to Tuesday's Overlooked/Forgotten Films at Todd Mason’s blog. You will find lots of interesting film and television reviews over there.

English novelist E.M. Forster (1879-1970) wrote A Passage to India in 1924 and, sixty years later, British filmmaker David Lean (1908-1991) made it into a successful film. It was his last. The film owes its success to Forster’s personal experience of India during the British Raj as much as it does to Lean’s keen writing and directorial sense.

For instance, Lean has captured, quite appropriately, the nationalistic, and often irrational, fervour and sentiment of the Indian people outraged by the arrest of a young doctor on charges of molesting an English woman. Set in 1920s, during the height of the freedom movement, the accusation is perceived as yet another racist attack by the imperialist British against an “innocent” countryman. A case of rubbing salt into the wound… 

A Passage to India is the story of Dr. Aziz H. Ahmed, a widower, played by the seasoned character-actor Victor Banerjee, who unwittingly endears himself to a young woman named Adela (Judy Davis) and her future mother-in-law Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). The two women from England wish to see the real India with an unprejudiced eye and ask Aziz to take them on a sightseeing trip to the Marabar Caves, a fictional place. Overcome by claustrophobia during the trip, Mrs. Moore excuses herself and insists the two proceed without her.

When Aziz and Adela, escorted by a lone guide, reach the caves on top of a hill, the doctor excuses himself briefly to have a quiet smoke behind a rock. As Adela awaits his return, she ventures into one of the caves and soon begins to get a distorted feeling within the dark and foreboding interior. Aziz returns to the spot to find Adela missing. He peers into the cave and calls out her name frantically. Though she can see him standing in the sunlit entrance to the cave, she remains silent. He can’t see her in the pitch darkness. As Aziz moves away to look for her elsewhere, Adela emerges from the cave and runs blindly down the hill to the road below where she is “rescued” by another English woman and taken to the hospital. Adela is shivering and is disoriented, and has cuts all over her body.

Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee and Peggy Ashcroft in the film.

The story begins when Adela accuses Aziz of attempted rape and the physician is promptly arrested and placed on trial. The action shifts to the court where a bespectacled and harried Indian judge presides over the case in the presence of a trio of lawyers for the defendant, McBryde (Michael Culver), the police inspector and public prosecutor, and a room filled with English men and women waiting for Aziz to be sentenced. Outside, there is complete pandemonium as a huge crowd of angry Indians push back the khakhi-clad policemen in a violent effort to storm the court.

In the end, Adela takes the stand, looks up hesitantly, and finds Aziz glowering at her. And that’s as far as I’m going with this review. No spoilers.

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Of the cast Judy Davis as Adela is not very convincing while the elderly Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore raises the bar with her grace and quiet elegance. Victor Banerjee does well as the bearded Dr. Aziz Ahmed with a talkative and an emotional disposition. He has a formidable reputation in parallel cinema as opposed to the commercial films dished out by the Indian film industry every year.

Apart from Aziz and the two English women, there are two other notable characters— Richard Fielding (James Fox), superintendent of the local school, the only Englishman who believes his friend Aziz is innocent, and Prof. Godbole (Alec Guinness), an elderly Brahmin scholar who wears a turban and looks at everything with an indifferent eye. “My philosophy is you can do what you like... but the outcome will be the same,” he tells Fielding.

As I said at the beginning, Lean has made this film the way an Indian director would have made it, particularly in terms of the mood and emotion of the people, the summer sun that breathes hot and humid air down your neck, the sudden downpour that takes a suited and booted Richard Fielding by surprise, and the rustic landscape of the countryside, little details that enrich the film.

A Passage to India, which is true to Forster’s novel, does justice to both, the Indians and the British, and therein lies its appeal.

A few interesting facts… 

David Lean has made ambitious films based on several famous books like The Greatest Story Ever Told by Fulton Oursler; Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak; Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of T.E. Lawrence; The Bridge on the River Kwai by French author Pierre Boulle; One Woman's Story by H.G. Wells; and Oliver Twist and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Peggy Ashcroft, the legendary English actress, was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1956. She won an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

A Passage to India was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (won two), 5 Golden Globe (won three), and 9 BAFTA Awards (won one), all including Peggy Ashcroft.

Five of David Lean’s movies appeared in the top 30 (three of them in the top five) in a list of 100 favourite British films of the 20th century compiled by the British Film Institute in 1999.


  1. I'd like to read this book. If I am not mistaken it is now an Advanced Level text here.

  2. Mystica, I think the book is also a
    part of the English curriculum in India, probably at the university level.

  3. I saw this film many MANY years ago and left the theater totally perplexed. What on earth happened in that cave?

    I'm assuming that whatever happened is not meant to be as important as the effect of the accusation and the trial.

    But stiil, to this day, I remain confused. :)

  4. Enjoyed this. Thanks. I recall the film, though it blends in memory with the series JEWEL IN THE CROWN.

  5. Never saw this one, though I do want to at some point.

  6. I must watch this film at some point. I am very fond of Forster´s "Howard´s End" - both the novel and the brilliant film.

  7. Great choice Prashant and I was really intrigued to hear your take on it. I love Lean's films and am a great fan of this movie though as I've only been to India a few times I don't think I could comment on its accuracy in depicting India, or Indians. I'm sure he was spot on about the Brits though!. It does veer quite far from the Forster novel in many respects of course, especially at the end, and the casting of Guinness was certainly either bold, foolhardy or just plain controversial though I think he is fairly convincing in the circumstances.

    Just a small point - Lean did do a little bit of filming on THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD to help when George Stevens fell ill, but it was done as a favour and can't really be counted amongst his films.

    Have you ever seen the BBC adaptation of PASSAGE directed by Waris Hussein in 1965? Considering that it was made virtually all in the studio on a low budget, it is remarkably successful though of course it completely lacks the sweep of Lean's version.

  8. Yvette, I'm pretty confused about the cave scene too! I'm guessing she was delusional, a play of the mind, as it were. You are right — the film is about the accusation and the subsequent trial in the backdrop of the growing resentment against the British occupation. Lean doesn't waste much time with the trial and gets it out of the way rather quickly.

  9. Ron, thanks very much. You are right about the film "blending" with JEWEL IN THE CROWN — the story line is quite similar, at least initially, though the British TV serial has many subplots. I watched the series on Indian television in the late 1980s and don't remember much.

  10. Charles, I hope you get to see this film. I think you'll like it. It captures the essence of pre-independent India quite well.

  11. Dorte, I do hope you get an opportunity to watch A PASSAGE TO INDIA. I saw HOWARD'S END several years ago though I don't recall reading the book. It's one of three films by Merchant Ivory Productions based on Forster's novels. The other two are A ROOM WITH A VIEW and MAURICE. I haven't seen MAURICE yet. Another Merchant-Ivory film, HEAT AND DUST, is also set in the British Raj. It was based on a novel by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala who wrote the screeplay for many of the duo's films.

  12. Sergio, thank you very much. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that you had been to India a few times. When was this? I'd like to know what you thought about the country at the time.

    David Lean was "spot on" about Indians who let their hearts rule their heads (even now). For example, one of Aziz's lawyers, played by Art Malik, lets his emotions get the better of him when he finds out the Brits have quietly "shipped" Mrs. Moore, a likely witness, out of India. He shouts loudly in the court, like one possessed, before storming out and rousing the crowds even more.

    Casting Alec Guinness as Prof. Godbole was certainly a bold and brilliant move. He is as convincing as any Indian would have been in the role.

    Sergio, I stand corrected on Lean's role in the filming of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. I decided to mention his name against the film in spite of learning (from IMDb) that Lean and one, Jean Negulesco, directed only some of the scenes that were uncredited. That doesn't make it Lean's film.

    I haven't seen the BBC adaptation of PASSAGE directed by Waris Hussein. I'll check it out if I can, thanks.

  13. I haven't see the film, though I'm adding it to my list; thanks for the review. I do strongly recommend the novel to anyone who hasn't read it. In addition to the plot there are some descriptions there that have just stayed with me (for instance, the echoes in the caves, the frightening empty reverberations that unhinge Mrs. Moore).

  14. HKatz, thanks for the comment. I read Forster's novel more than two decades ago and I'm planning to read it again, for a better perspective of Lean's film and to find out more about those parts that Lean left out of his film, including what really happened inside the cave.

  15. I will have to see this now that someone who knows the land gives it approval.

  16. Patti, I hope you get to watch this film. I'm sure you'll like it. There have been quite a few movies on British Raj in India including Attenborough's GANDHI, my personal favourite.

  17. I saw this again last week. It is a visually stunning film and i found your review of the cast spot on

  18. Mel, thanks for the appreciation. I enjoyed the film too.