In 1970, a somewhat bewildered David Lean faced down a particularly hostile New York City Press Club out to trash his latest screen epic, Ryan’s Daughter. Lean, who could be counted upon as caustic and exacting on the set was, I suspect, thinner skinned when it came to taking criticism – especially when it was grossly unwarranted. But by 1970, the elegant world of film-making Lean grew up with, and had been a major contributor to, had decidedly moved on. And the critics on this particular afternoon were ready to pillage and pelt Ryan’s Daughter with their baskets full of rotten eggs in belligerent scorn; underhandedly analyzing it as not being the movie they wanted to see, rather than critiquing it for the myriad of qualities it so palpably possessed. To the critics, the adjudication on Ryan’s Daughter became something of a blood sport; a means to bludgeon its resplendent and unabashedly romanticized story, grafted onto a backdrop of civil unrest in Ireland; the picture, rechristened as little more or even better than a creaky melodrama; Lean, seemingly grasping to resuscitate his reputation as one of the most renowned film makers, as well as reestablish the aura, majesty and spectacle of his own, Doctor Zhivago (1965).
To his everlasting regret, as Master of Ceremonies for this ‘event screening’, Richard Schickel, put the proverbial final nail in Lean’s coffin of creativity by inquiring, “How could the director of Brief Encounter (1945) make such a piece of shit as Ryan’s Daughter?” It should be noted that Ryan’s Daughter never devolves to that level of excrement Schickel unwisely ascribed it; nor has time since managed to impugn its finely crafted tragi-romantic elements. It remains judiciously scripted and splendidly photographed; a feast for the heart and mind, out of step – perhaps – with reigning tastes then, though hard-pressed to be considered a ‘lesser’ in the canon of Lean’s other masterworks. Following Ryan’s Daughter’s failure at the box office, for all intent and purposes, Lean retired from making movies, though not from planning even more ambitious projects that, for the most part – and regrettably so – would never materialize.
There is little to deny Lean was wounded by the negative response to Ryan’s Daughter. His formidable expenditures of time, craftsmanship and money completely overlooked; the hatchets out and ready to chip away at a reputation that, until Ryan’s Daughter, had remained impregnably Teflon-coated. Afterward, Lean went into a mild depression and self-imposed exile. The world of cinema continued to evolve (or devolve, as the case may be) into smaller entertainments for which there appeared to be no place for Lean’s particular brand of stylish originality. Small wonder it took Lean over a decade to return to the big screen; again, with an impressive cinematic translation; this time of E.M Forster’s beloved novel, A Passage To India (1984). Holding true to Forster’s critique of Imperial British dominance, the screenplay by Lean concerns itself with a journey made to the Far East in 1928 by Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a young Englishwoman, whose sojourn to the fictional hamlet of Chandrapore takes an unexpected detour when she finds herself haunted by an, as yet, untapped erotic lust for a young Indian man while exploring the Marabar Caves. Charging her harmless and congenial guide, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) with rape, Adela's accusation becomes a cause célèbre, threatening to rupture the already pensive civility between these colonizing forces and the native inhabitants.
Naturally, Adela’s fiancé, magistrate, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers) is all set to prosecute Aziz to the fullest extent of the law. But Miss Quested’s traveling companion – and never to be mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) – remains unconvinced of Aziz's complicity. She has seen firsthand what colonization has done to the supposedly ‘modern’ India; its mistreatment of the populace under a yoke of graceless, smug superiority; the pall and sting utterly repugnant to her more refined sensibilities, Mrs. Moore remains the singular voice of reason throughout Aziz’s ordeal, and even before it. Mrs. Moore is equally outspoken in condemning her son for having assimilated into this ethnocentric counterculture of mean-spirited racism. After Adela’s ‘rape’, Ronny encourages his mother to depart India before Aziz’s trial can get underway, thereby making her unavailable as a witness for his defense. Aziz’s one sincere friend amongst the colony is Prof. Richard Fielding (James Fox); an academic who recognizes, but does not appreciate the hypocrisies of his fellow countrymen. Regrettably, he is powerless to stall the unnatural course of action leading to a trial that may very well find Aziz guilty – merely on the grounds of his Indian heritage. After much consternation, Mrs. Moore is coaxed aboard a steamer bound for England. Unaccustomed to the heat, and, believing she has somehow contributed to a great injustice, she unexpectedly dies of a heart attack and is buried at sea.
Aziz is acquitted of his crime, but only after Adela publicly confesses under the duress of cross-examination she felt compelled to accuse Aziz of rape to save her own face - suppressing her libidinous desires to make love to him inside the Marabar Caves. Exonerated, though understandably grown bitter by the experience, Aziz admonishes Fielding in his desire to smooth things over. Fielding resigns from the university and the British Club. But Aziz’s scorn for all British society endures this rupture in their friendship. Years pass and Aziz becomes a doctor in a small town far removed from all the unpleasantness of the past. On a return trip to India, Fielding seeks Aziz out, correcting a misconception he has bitterly harbored since the trial. Although Fielding was last seen escorting Adela from the courthouse, he has not married her in the interim as Aziz believes, but rather, has become the devoted husband to Mrs. Moore's own daughter. The two men come to an understanding, and Aziz allows himself the power of forgiveness.
Fourteen years after the debacle on Ryan’s Daughter, A Passage to India revealed Lean had lost none of his vim, vigor or virtuosity for bringing stories deeply rooted in humanity at its best and its worst to the big screen. The movie greatly benefits from its unorthodox central casting. A Passage to India has virtually ‘no stars’ to recommend it – at least, none that would have meant anything to North American audiences in 1984. Judy Davis, in particular, gives us an introspective Adela Quested; intelligent, yet too high borne to be considered a rebel, while not above chafing at the keen arrogance that surrounds and increasingly comes to suffocate her. Even more unexpected is the near noxious undercurrent of sexual frustration Davis is able to convey with barely a flick of an eyebrow; wounded rage, misdirected at Aziz despite his irreproachable kindness.
Victor Banerjee’s Dr. Aziz is a formidable undertaking; Banerjee possessing and unleashing an unanticipated wellspring of racial prejudice – arguably, well deserved – against the British during the last act of our story; somewhat abated by Fielding’s return and the revelation he has not married the woman whom Aziz rightly or wrongly still regards as his nemesis. Art Malik as Ali, the attorney who defends Aziz, and, Saeed Jaffrey as their good friend, Hamidullah, lend an air of authenticity to this independently funded production, produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwyn. Debatably, the singular casting misfire is Alec Guinness as the Indian mystic, Godbole. For some years, and despite their frequently clashes in artistic temperaments, Lean regarded Guinness as his ‘good luck charm’. To some extent, Lean would always believe at least part of Ryan’s Daughter’s failure was due to Guinness having turned down the part of Father Collins, eventually played by Trevor Howard. Against the advice of Richard Goodwyn, Lean cast Guinness in A Passage to India as the beautifully imperceptive, Godbole, who understands far more and better than he is given credit.
Critics then, and ever since have been disdainful of both Lean and Guinness’ chutzpah to invest in what is essentially a contemporized ‘blackface’ routine, chiefly played as sobering comic relief. Personally, having loved and esteemed Guinness as far better than a chameleon, I continue to revere his Godbole; hardly the weak link in A Passage to India. Fair enough, he is not of East Indian extraction. But isn’t that what ‘character’ acting is all about; a terrific mimicry giving rise and credence to our suspension in disbelief? And those highly critical of his performance, were forgiving of his Arab Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia (1962); another inspired bit of casting for which Guinness ought to have been Oscar-nominated. Godbole is not an Oscar-worthy turn, alas; and yet, Guinness is perversely charming in the part; prone to whimsical bouts of silence and wide-eyed accusatory stares from behind his large round spectacles. There is an inner ‘actor’s’ intuition at play and a spark of brilliance that goes well beyond the grotesque whitewash of a caricature. Guinness’s Godbole gives us the art of acting as well as its soul.
Last, but certainly not least, we remember the late, great, Dame Peggy Ashcroft as the angelic and forgiving, Mrs. Moore. In her prime, Ashcroft had been an irrefutable beauty of the English theater; an actress whose arresting range in performance on stage was never entirely tested, much less equaled in the picture-making business and who, even while toiling on a project of as distinguished a pedigree as A Passage to India, harbored a inimitable and withstanding disparagement for movies in general, considered only as the ‘inferior art’. In years yet to follow, it was not uncommon for visitors to Ashcroft’s home to discover her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, won for A Passage to India, casually being used as a doorstop to her closet. Only in hindsight, does one occasionally catch a fleeting glimpse of this irksomeness in Ashcroft’s performance as Mrs. Moore; the way she perhaps appears to be suffering from the heat or casting the occasional stern glance at Antonia Pemberton’s Mrs. Turton.
To a great extent, A Passage to India succeeds in its devastating conveyance of E.M. Forster’s finely edged sensibilities as pure paradox. Dame Ashcroft is the film’s foundation, full of graceful sovereignty. Early in the film, Mrs. Moore dares to embark on what she later informs Adela has been her ‘small adventure’, encountering Dr. Aziz for the first time inside the remnants of a mosque overlooking the moonlit Ganges River. The scene is a combination of matte process, studio-bound sets and stock location photography seamlessly married in the editing room; the luminosity in their brief ‘cute meet’ illustrating a mutual respect, not only afforded one another, but also Lean and the production. Aziz, believing no English lady would remember to remove her shoes and shroud her head before entering, at first admonishes Mrs. Moore, ordering her from the sacred temple. Momentarily frightened by his outburst, she admits to having left her shoes outside, before stepping from the shadows to reveal her head too is covered by a gauzy shawl. Aziz humbled, makes his apologies, adding most English ladies would not have bothered when ‘no one is here’, to which Mrs. Moore replies, “…but God is here.” If A Passage to India has a soul, it is most clearly unveiled in this gentle moment between Mrs. Moore and Dr. Aziz; Lean, later endeavoring to recreate its ethereal elements for the moment when Mrs. Moore, aboard the steamer bound for England, suddenly casts her head toward the starry night, remembering the recent past before succumbing to her fatal heart attack.
A Passage to India also affords Lean the luxury to indulge his artistic sentiments for travelogue-styled scenery, demonstrating (as though any demonstration were required) his ability to communicate the intimacies of this microcosmic tale, centered on redemptive friendships, yet set against the vastness of India itself. As with all Lean epics, this one is particularly well-heeled, attesting to a level of quality and scope rarely witnessed in movies from the 1980s. Forster’s novel was undeniably one of the literary milestones of the 20th century; a reason why it probably never made the leap from page to screen until Lean’s adaptation. Because great novels rarely translate undiluted into cinema art; the arc in their thought-provoking proses defiantly ambiguous and not meant to be remade via concretely manifested visualizations. The real challenge for Lean – one he magnificently rises to meet and spectacularly assails with confidence – is how to express a moment that, at least in the novel, happens – or doesn’t – offstage. Adela’s rape, if it has, in fact, occurred, is never taken to task or explained away in Forster’s novel. And thus, Lean remains equally as dubious about what is the truth – or at least, Adela’s perceptions of it.
After the main titles, set to Maurice Jarre’s bombastic underscore, we are given a preamble to the adventure about to unfold; Adela Quested preparing passages for herself and Mrs. Moore to India. Arriving amidst all the pomp and circumstance of the British Viceroy and his wife’s return aboard their luxury steamer, Adela and Mrs. Moore are quickly introduced to the ‘real’ India; a steamy, sweaty and penetratingly pungent conclave of thronging masses. Adela has come to India to marry Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny – the priggish local magistrate. Embarking for Union Station to catch their train to Chandrapore, Mrs. Moore and Adela are assailed by the rather boorish and gossipy, Mrs. Turton, who invites them to dine. In short order, Lean crosscuts these moments of British provinciality with a glimpse into the ‘other’ India; impoverished, yet colorful. Dr. Aziz and his friend, Ali are nearly rundown in the streets by the Turton’s chauffeur-driven automobile; Lean’s early establishment of the European disregard for both local culture and its peoples.
Adela and Mrs. Moore are met in Chandrapore by Ronny, who hastens them through the crowded market square and city streets by horse-drawn hack to the isolationist neighborhood of neatly rowed houses where the colonialists have established themselves as masters of all they survey. Inquiring to know something of the real India, Mrs. Moore and Adela are instead shown around the cultured gardens of the British Club where, as Rudyard Kipling might have put it ‘east is east’ and western influencers are perfectly satisfied to keep themselves separated from the locals; a situation Mrs. Moore finds ‘unnatural and appalling’. That evening, Mrs. Moore wanders away from the club to pursue her own modest adventure inside a moonlit mosque. There, she meets Dr. Aziz for the first time, and after some initial awkwardness, the two come to regard one another in warm friendship. Escorting Mrs. Moore back to the club, she offers to invite him in; Aziz, sheepishly pointing out, no Indians are allowed inside.
A short time later, the women are introduced to Prof. Fielding whose passion for India has caused him to cultivate a few native Indian friendships in spite of his position, including Dr. Aziz and the mystic, Godbole. The depth of Fielding’s mutual affinity for Aziz is illustrated in a poignant scene in which Aziz allows Fielding to look upon a concealed portrait of his deceased wife – a very great honor indeed. Inviting Adela, Mrs. Moore, Aziz and Godbole to his home for afternoon luncheon, the conversation turns awkward when Aziz offers to procure an expedition for the ladies to the Marabar Caves; a sequestered series of man-made caverns that have long-since acquired, as Godbole puts it, ‘a reputation’. Unaware of this, Aziz begs Ali and their good friend, Hamidullah to help plan the journey by train, to which Fielding equally agrees to act as a traveling companion, nee chaperone for the ladies, together with Godbole’s assist. Alas, Godbole oversleeps on the day of the expedition. He and Fielding miss the train, forcing Aziz to carry on with the formidable entourage he has assembled to see to Mrs. Moore and Adela’s luxury and comforts.
Traveling, first by elevated train, then elephant, and finally on foot, the group arrive at the Marabar Caves. These produce an ominous echo from the least little bit of sound made inside them. Mrs. Moore suffers a panic attack inside one of the caves and seeks solace in the shade of a nearby tree. But she encourages Adela to go on with Aziz and explore the higher plateau with more hidden inlets. This, alas, is where things become interesting – or rather – curiously unclear and yet terrifying. Adela wanders off and finds herself quite alone inside one of the echo chambers; observing as Aziz approaches the opening to call out her name. The echo this produces is enough to stir and rattle Adela’s nerves. When next we see her, she is racing down a perilously steep incline, her dress and skin torn by the thorny vegetation; rescued at the base of the mountain by the Turton’s and taken immediately to hospital. There, Adela confesses – or does she? – to being raped by Aziz. And thus, begins the nightmarish ordeal. Aziz is put on trial with the very real likelihood he will be found guilty. Whether or not he has actually committed any crime is open for debate. But Aziz tearfully, and convincingly, pleads his innocence to Fielding, who believes him.
Trusting Mrs. Moore would be able to shed light on what transpired at the Marabar Caves, Ali subpoenas her as his star defense witness. Determined to avert the strain of having his mother testify against his fiancé, but perhaps even more committed to finding Aziz guilty, thus preserving his own integrity as the magistrate, Ronny quietly ushers Mrs. Moore onto a steamer bound for home, thereby making her unavailable for cross-examination. Outraged, Ali calls for an acquittal. Aboard the steamer, Mrs. Moore suffers a heart attack and dies, her body later committed to the sea. Back in Chandrapore, Ali puts Adela on the stand. The strain proving too great, she confesses under oath to having lied about the rape – but with no explanation for her deception forthcoming. Nevertheless, as no crime has been committed, Aziz is free to go. He is carried out of court on the shoulders of his supporters in the middle of a monsoon rain; the crowds waiting outside becoming uncontrollably ecstatic. Looking back in disbelief, Aziz witnesses Fielding rush to Adela’s side, hastily ushering her to safety. For Aziz, who once believed Fielding as his one true friend from the British colony, choosing Adela over him now appears as an absolute betrayal of their fragile trust.
Fielding later begs Aziz’s indulgences to explain his motives. But Aziz has turned against his old friend and refuses to listen. Fielding resigns from the club and the university and goes back home to England. Many years pass. Godbole visits Aziz in his new practice and is as cryptic as ever. But Aziz has since forsaken the ways of the British, even down to the clothing he wears. Fielding returns to India, determined he should make one last effort to make a mends with Aziz. Having learned from Godbole that Fielding has since married, Aziz naturally assumes his bride is Adela Quested. However, when Fielding at last reunites with Aziz, who is at first bitter and unwelcoming, he informs his old friend he has married Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Stella (Sandra Hotz). Recalling Mrs. Moore as the gentlest English woman he has ever known, Aziz finds it in his heart to forgive Fielding. The two share a few memorable hours together and Fielding and Stella depart for home; leaving Aziz to hypothesize, as he observes their car leaving a tiny trail of dust along the open road, “I do not think I shall ever see my friend again.”
In part, due to David Lean’s masterful acuities about India, effectively vacated of the overvisited aspects and derived from a more intimate affinity for its land and peoples; also, because of his unique abilities as a richly varied storyteller, A Passage to India gradually builds as an adventure of passionate extremes. Only Alec Guinness’ Godbole escapes its’ excruciating vibrancy with complete equability; imbued by a philosophy that life will essentially take care of itself as it should, and, in its own good time. Lean’s India is hardly a travelogue, although he does give the audience the prerequisite ‘master shots’ for which all of Lean’s epics are justly famous; some gorgeous matte process work depicting Adela and Miss Quested’s train passing through vast sundrenched and moonlit landscapes. But it is the intangibleness of India, perceived from an outsider’s perspective, but with an incapacity to ever fully comprehend India on its own terms, only in part because of its vastness and extraordinarily diverse culture, that Lean nails bang on from the outset; the smallness – nee, intimacy – of his story emphasized by the monumental scope achieved in his visuals. Detailed that he is, Lean has invigorated his actors to give unblemished, precise and unpretentious performances, each religiously adhering to his screenplay, infused with archetypal simplicity. In doing so, Lean gets to the essence of Forster’s novel; the author’s love of India as well as his generalized disdain for its colonizing influences.
At the time of its release, Lean was marginally criticized for not going ‘all the way’ in Forster’s condemnation of England’s smug superiority. Lean was also roasted for casting Alec Guinness as Godbole. Despite these criticisms, A Passage to India is superb in every last detail. Lean and his production designer, John Box have given us a sumptuous overview of post-Imperial India, building a full scale marketplace and town center onto the back of an existing Maharaja’s palace – mostly for the purposes of crowd control, and populating their makeshift backdrop with indigenous peoples. Like Lean's most fondly remembered masterworks (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai) location is itself a star in A Passage to India. Ernest Day's lush and lovely cinematography captures the sumptuousness, the allure and the steamy mystery of this brightly colored culture clash. Judy Moorcroft's costumes and Hugh Scaife's set decoration add memorable touches to these visually dense backdrops.
Although nominated for Best Picture, like Ryan’s Daughter before it, A Passage to India was hardly a blockbuster. Its mediocre box office clearly reflected the rift between old and new Hollywood was, if anything, widening; the film's 'old time' lavishness arguably at odds with the more slapdash way of telling stories on celluloid, circa the 1980s. Reflecting on A Passage to India today, one clearly sees its virtues more than its vices. Although David Lean had hoped to direct a movie about Nostradamus, A Passage to India would prove his swan song, and a fitting one at that. For Lean, who died in 1991, A Passage to India marks his film-maker’s legacy as a secretively sensitive and passionate visual artist, imbued with the rarest of immeasurable wits, intuitiveness and superior stealth behind the camera. Regardless of what one thinks about Lean as an ‘old-fashioned’ picture maker, A Passage to India remains a glorious epitaph of immense splendor and transcendent intelligence.
Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray easily bests its old DVD transfer. The 1080p image is reference quality and the benefactor of a formidable hi-def restoration; a habit with Grover Crisp and his experts and a very good one to emulate. Framed in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, A Passage to India exhibits bold, rich and vibrant colors; superbly rendered contrast levels and a ravishingly detailed image that will surely not disappoint; void of any untoward digital manipulations. Prepare to be dazzled, because few Blu-rays look as good as this. The 5.1 audio, alas, is something of a different story. A Passage to India was one of Sony’s very first hi-def restorations. And while it is obvious great pains and care have gone into virtually every aspect of this clean-up, I have never been able to properly decode Sony’s audio mastering efforts to provide anything less than a low frequency garble of the first few scenes; beginning with Adela’s arranging her and Mrs. Moore’s passage, to their arrival via boat in India, and, right up until their awkward train dining experience with the Turtons.
The audio here favors background effects that overpower the dialogue, making it sound washed out and, on occasion, inaudible. As example, when Mrs. Moore tips the driver of her hired hack and calls to him, the words “Victoria Station” are barely heard amidst a convolution of indigenous sounds, steam and boat whistles and a sea of humanity cluttering the tarmac. The old DVD soundtrack, while hardly perfect, nevertheless allowed us to hear these words more clearly. But this Blu-ray remastering somehow makes all voices in the first fifteen minutes or so of this presentation seem thin and very weak indeed. Things definitely improve thereafter, but it’s still a disappointing flaw on what is otherwise a reference quality disc. The Blu-Ray is chocked full of extra features, including a fascinating picture-in-picture commentary and another isolated audio commentary by Richard Goodwyn. We get expertly produced featurettes on Forster and the making of the film, with vintage interviews featuring cast and crew and Lean discussing the joys of picture-making. There’s also a brief retrospective of Lean’s career and a theatrical trailer to enjoy. Bottom line: well worth the price of admission and recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)