From the very first frame – the opening credits in fact – A Passage to India commands our complete attention. The names in classic lettering are superimposed on Indian art of a predominately a golden colour; thus the stage is set for an exotic tale of epic proportions. What is most intriguing about the credits though is the introduction of Maurice Jarre’s main theme which runs throughout the film. Sure it possesses the quintessential ‘soaring strings’ of many an epic, and yet, the basic melody is positively…jaunty. Buoyant and terribly reminiscent of the old 20s dance bands, the music is best described as (and do forgive the dreadful pun) jarring. Almost at once, our imagination has been seized.
Here, before we have even met a single character, several key ideas have been established. Firstly, that things are never as they seem in this tale; in other words, our characters may look content, but all are hiding how they really feel. Secondly, we realise that the British themselves are ill at ease in their surroundings, just as the score seems somewhat unfitting of a grand adventure. They are comfortable with neither the India they have claimed, nor the people whom they concurrently conquered.
A Passage to India centres on one such Brit: Miss Adela Quested, who sails from England to see her fiancé – a snooty, rather tiresome fellow by the name of Ronny Heaslop. Accompanying Quested is Heaslop’s mother, the kindly Mrs Moore. Upon their arrival, the two women are surprised to find the Anglicised world in which they find themselves, as well as the disdain with which the locals are regarded. Longing for a glimpse of the ‘real India’, Adela and Mrs Moore embark on a journey to the remote Marabar Caves escorted by a new friend: the Indian physician Dr Aziz Ahmed. From this point onwards, the charmed, rather idyllic existence that Lean at first paints begins to unravel; just as India begins to reveal herself, so too does the true character of Adela come to light.
One of the most memorable scenes of the film comes not from Forster, but from the pen of Lean. For the first time in the movie, Miss Quested travels alone, riding on her bicycle through a deserted countryside. Particular attention is drawn to a road sign of apparently little significance. As Adela cycles down an overgrown path, we linger a moment on the road sign once more – at this angle, it is unmistakable as a cross. The message is clear: Quested is leaving behind her haven of Western mores and Christianity. Now, she ventures alone.
Adela doesn’t quite realise it at first, but the path eventually takes her to a tantric shrine, long-abandoned and falling to ruin. We cut between the decaying erotic sculptures and the face of Adela as she reacts to each of them – interchanging between the two with an increasing frequency, resulting in a kind of accelerated montage. This technique has the uncanny ability of not only racking up the tension, but also subtly welding the two entities together.
The statues, as well as the shrine itself, unlock in Adela a lifetime of sexual repression. Adela seems to fall into a kind of daze, only to be interrupted suddenly by the appearance of ferocious monkeys, perhaps a reminder of the animalistic desires that is within all of us. They crouch ominously, seemingly preparing to attack Adela. Overwhelmed by both her internal emotions and a whole host of external forces, Adela flees back into the arms of Heaslop. Although she does not love him, she fears what India has awakened in herself, and finds in him the comfort of that which is fundamentally familiar.
Like the novel, the focal point of the film is the scene in the Marabar Caves. Unlike the novel however, the movie cannot be so ostensibly vague about whether or not Adela is assaulted due to the vey nature of the medium. We are therefore left with a kind of impartial reality of what actually happened. Standing in the darkness of the cave, Adela sees the figure of Aziz, a man who she has become increasingly drawn to but whom she knows she can never have. Dr Aziz calls for her, but by the time his voice reaches her, it becomes a deep, haunting rumble of indiscernible noise. The doctor is arguably stood in such a way that recalls the monkeys about to pounce. Once more, and this time more seriously than the last, Miss Quested is utterly overcome, hallucinating a scene of attempted rape.
A trial ensues. It is this very event that seems to, once and for all, completely divide the British and the Indians. Aziz’s only English friend, Mr Richard Fielding, seems to turn his back on him. Even though Fielding promises to be but a moment, there is such a look of haunting loss in Aziz’s eyes when Fielding leaves that we understand that this is the end. The two men were never meant to be friends – arguably they never truly were.
Aziz’s name is ultimately cleared when Adela comes to her senses (signified beautifully by the rain washing away the grime on a window). Nevertheless, we never really get the resolution we crave. Although they ultimately make peace with what has happened, Aziz dons traditional Indian attire for perhaps the first time in the film, signifying his departure from the British and the abandonment of his wish for understanding and harmony between the two cultures. Adela returns home to England, and we watch as she continues the sheltered and disappointing life she had once sought to escape from.This post is part of the 1984-a-thon hosted by Forgotten Films. For more reviews of movies released during this fantastic year, click here.
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Rachel. I can say without a doubt in my mind that this would have been a movie I would have passed on. But it was also 30 years ago, I have matured a tiny bit since then. But as I have read more and more of your perspectives of and about movies, a more mature Bill would most likely sit down and enjoy this. Clearly I don’t have your ability to understand the nuances of a movie, lighting, sound, and all the other technical aspects. But I do understand and appreciate character development. I read novels for that purpose to watch key characters develop. You bring that to your review/explanation of a movie. Thanks, Bill
Very glad to hear it Bill. I actually didn’t like A Passage to India particularly the first time round, but gradually I have grown to love it – I am sure you would enjoy it too if you gave it a good chance. You are very right in saying that one of the most important (if not the most important) aspects of a film is the development of the main characters. It really is fantastic to watch a character gradually change and emerge as a different person at the end. Hopefully, you also get “into the head” a little of these characters, and receive a glimpse of what it would feel like to live in their world. Take care, Rachel
Another almost forgotten film here Rachel, and one of Lean’s list of triumphs. My only issue with the film was the casting of Guinness in the role of an Indian. Surely by that time they should have used an Indian actor? Peggy Ashcroft was superb as Mrs More though, and there were many creditable performances in the film generally.
Your review is astute, and more than does it justice.
Best wishes, Pete.
Yes, Guinness playing Godbole wasn’t exactly the film’s finest turn. While I don’t see it as a massive issue, I am sure it would have been much better to have casted an Indian actor as you have noted. Nevertheless, this certainly doesn’t detract from the many other wonderful performances. Ashcroft, Banerjee and, of course, Davis as the central character are all well suited to their parts and portray them very delightfully.
I’d forgotten what a great movie this is and how much I enjoyed watching it. Time to see it again. Such a young Judy Davis!
This lovely piece is why I follow your blog and look forward to each posting.
Thank you for your kind comment – I hope to hear from you again soon then :)
Haven’t see this in years. Definitely worth a re-watch. Cheers
I saw this movie once, years ago, and did not like it. It was beautifully filmed and I thought the casting was wonderful. However, I did not find the plot or the ending to be very satisfying – I felt like I had wasted my time. However, now that I’ve read your review, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to give it another go.
I didn’t particularly enjoy A Passage to India the first time I saw it either. Ordinarily, I don’t think I would’ve even written about the movie, but I had promised Todd over Forgotten Films to review it. After several more viewings, I began to see tiny details I’d missed before, engage with the frankly remote characters much better, and eventually I really grew to love it.
This is a movie that came out at the wrong time for me, when I was too young and too … well, young is again probably the best term for it … to appreciate it. I’ve since come to quite enjoy the book, and realized just how amazing every David Lean film I’ve seen is, so I really ought to catch this movie.
Being a fan of both Lean and Forster, I am sure you will enjoy this film very much. While remaining true to the novel’s character and vision, Lean weaves the tale in an original fashion – a definite mark of a great artist.