Saturday, February 28, 2015


(December 1984, U.S.)

Despite my enormous appreciation for some of director David Lean's best work like THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), I'm actually ashamed to admit that I never heard of the man until 1984 when A PASSAGE TO INDIA, his first film in fourteen years since RYAN'S DAUGHTER (1970), which I still haven't seen, was released. But believe it or not, even at the juvenile age of seventeen, during a year that was filled with more blockbuster selections like Indiana Jones, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Star Trek (Live long and prosper, Leonard Nimoy!), Dune and the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I actually had a strong desire to see what was likely a very slow moving film like A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Perhaps I was still riding on the cinematic high I'd gotten two years prior when I'd seen GANDHI on the big screen. Like that film, David Lean's project, based on the E.M. Forster novel, is set in India during the 1920s and the time of the British occupation and the growing cultural influence to gain India her freedom. However, unlike GANDHI, there is only human drama and almost no political motivation behind the story. In fact, oddly enough, the name of Mahatma Gandhi and the movement for freedom that he stands behind is not mentioned even once during the story of A PASSAGE TO INDIA, not even in passing. We know from our history of the occupation that exists, but the growing struggle for India's freedom doesn't seem to be an issue here. In fact, most Indian civilians in this film appear to display a great respect and admiration for their British occupants and their Western contributions.

Simply enough, this is the story of two British women, Adela Quested (played by Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (played by Peggy Ashcroft) who have sailed from England to India for the first time in their lives. As if they were visiting a grand theme park, the two women have strong desires to meet and socialize with "real Indians", as if they were circus attractions, or something. They both befriend Dr. Aziz Ahmed (played by Victor Banerjee), a poor, but proud man who shares the same sensitivity and unprejudiced attitude toward life and other people as Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested do. He seems more than willing to show these two ladies the "real" India, as opposed to the mundane environment of polo, cricket and afternoon tea these tiresome British expatriates have created for themselves. As a highlight, Dr. Aziz offers to host an excursion to the remote Marabar Caves. However, what begins as a pleasant outing somehow turns to trouble when Dr. Aziz and Ms. Quested find themselves isolated from the rest of the crowd and she has wandered into a deep, dark cave alone. As Dr. Aziz tries to find her by entering that same cave, she suddenly comes stumbling out and running for her life. What just happened? We can only presume it was attempted rape because that's exactly what the good and noble doctor is later accused of and put on trial for. Mind you, this is a man who has always looked nervous, overly-concerned and just a little sad throughout the entire film. Now, the empathy we have felt for him has now turned to possible contempt. We're not meant to be exactly sure of what happened in that cave, and as Ms. Quested finally takes the stand, it seems she may not be so sure, either. In what is concluded in her mind to have been a possible case of sun exhaustion and hallucination, she suddenly drops all the charges against her possible attacker and Dr. Aziz is freed and cleared along with his good name, even at the dismay of her British friends and bystanders who have been more than anxious to see an Indian man hang for an accused crime such as this. Still, because an effective script often provides us a main character who will inevitably experience some sort of personal change during the story, Dr. Aziz is no longer the kind and somewhat sad man he used to be. His love and respect for the British and all things of Western culture have now turned sour and for a time, he desires strong retribution. However, because a serious drama as this doesn't dwell too long on human anger and negative emotions, Dr. Aziz does find forgiveness in his heart and reconciliation in a final letter he writes to Ms. Quested conveying his forgiveness and his thanks, as well.

Like Richard Attenborough's famed 1982 film, David Lean takes every advantage of filming on location and showing his audience as much of the real India as he can. And while nothing may ever compare to those incredible wide-framed desert landscape shots that have been made so famous in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, the photography of this particular part of the world is nothing short of breathtaking. This is a provocative story filled with beauty, mystery and truly vivid, emotional characters played by gifted performers, some of whom I'd never seen or heard of before this film, particularly Judy Davis. Like other Lean films, there's a memorable music score by Maurice Jarre and even the usual role by David Lean film regular Alec Guinness (post STAR WARS trilogy), this time playing, of course, an Indian.

I saw A PASSAGE TO INDIA on screen when it was released. I was watching the film with my mother and there was a point where she just practically froze with a look of wonderment and awe. It was a particular scene when Ms. Quested is riding her bicycle alone in an open part of the country in India, exploring ancient temples, and my mother told me that she'd once been to the same exact spot during her own trip to India many years before. Of course, many people have many stories of places in the world they've visited and their place in motion pictures. However, considering my mother was not usually the type to get over-engrossed in movies, it was a momentary pleasure for me to see a film hit her on an emotional level such as that. Not too many films have.

Finally, I just want to say that although AMADEUS may have won the Oscar for best picture of 1984 (and it was a great film!), I think it's A PASSAGE TO INDIA that should have taken home that honor. So there!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ali: "How is Britain justified in holding India?"
Dr. Aziz: "Unfair, political question!"
Richard Fielding: "No, no. Well, personally, I'm here because I need a job."
Ali: "Qualified Indians also need jobs."
Richard: "I got here first."

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