A Passage to India

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Ah, I haven’t watched a David Lean film in I don’t know how long. It’s good to be back. I seem to be on a bit of a British kick lately, which is always a fun time. The latest film in that list in A Passage to India, Lean’s final film based on the EM Forster novel (which I must read one of these days). This film offers a lot: spectacular views of India, culture clashes, and intrigue.

Miss Quested (Judy Davis) is a young Englishwoman travelling to Chandrapour, India to get married. She is traveling, as all proper Englishwomen must, with a chaperon, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), the mother of the man she is going to marry. He is the town magistrate in Chandrapour. Once they arrive, they don’t quite understand why the Indians are considered second class in their own country, but they sense it and are troubled by it. Longing to see the real India, rather than the sort of second England the English have made of it, they set out with Dr. Aziz (Victor Bangerjee) on an expedition to some rather frightening caves. Both women have quite a bit of a scare, and Miss Quested disappears. When she is discovered, she is accusing Dr. Aziz of attempted rape. But did he do it?

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The second part becomes a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a rape trial reveals a lot of racism. The first half of the movie is something else altogether though. At the beginning of the film, you sense that the three main characters, Miss Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Dr. Aziz are all good people. When accusations against Dr. Aziz are leveled, it is very confusing. The audience almost certainly know he didn’t do it, and certainly thinks that it’s not in his character. The racism against Indians in their own country is built up, so we know the pressure that is put on Miss Quested by the other Englishmen there, but we also know that she doesn’t think like that and just wants to experience new things. It’s hard to believe that the things that are on screen are happening, but they are and that’s what makes the film so interesting. We see how easy it is for Miss Quested to wander off and get scared, contributing to her accusations. In the end though, the film is about forgiveness.

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The central ambiguity is very well crafted, and one of my favorite things about this film. Miss Quested wanders off in a dark cave, all we see is her face and the silhouette of Dr. Aziz. This is not in the same shot though, so we don’t even know if Aziz is about to enter the same cave that Miss Quested is in. Lean also cuts back to Mrs. Moore, during which time anything or nothing could be happening in the caves. I really liked how Miss Quested’s face was illuminated in a dark environment, while Dr. Aziz was lit the opposite: a dark figure in a bright environment. This shows a contrast between the two figures, but separates them from their environments in the same way. It also makes for a very striking visual. The whole scene at the caves is very quiet, making the whole thing very eerie, especially combined with the fact that it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on. However, our prior knowledge of the characters that has been built up over the course of the film helps guide us through.

Like my favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage of India does a great job with relating its characters and its environment. It amazes me how Lean can make such personal stories on such a vast landscape. True, this one has more main characters than Lawrence, but it still is remarkable how well you get to know the three of them even when they’re constantly being dwarfed by caves, elephants, and ancient temples. My favorite parts of this movie are when it quiets down and shows the characters simply taking in their environments. It doesn’t sound very exciting just to show about bunch of people checking out the sights in India, but by developing the characters as well as he does and giving them sights well worth looking at, Lean makes it exciting.

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The acting in the film is very strong. Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft are wonderful, but Victor Banerjee almost runs away with the whole movie as Dr. Aziz. While he may go over the top at some points, he’s such a good guy that you can’t help rooting for him. All he wants is the approval and acceptance of the English, and he tries to hard and is thwarted in so many unfair ways. He gives such an earnest and sincere performance, even if it is endearing to the point of annoyance at some points. The rest of the cast is great as well, and it seems weird to say, but the one who sticks out like a sore thumb is Alec Guiness as Godbole, a Hindu professor. Despite makeup and the rest, he’s still very much Alec Guiness and it’s very awkward, especially in a film that attacks racism.

A Passage to India was a terrific film. Not only is it gorgeous, but has a lot of interesting themes to think about and engaging characters. It’s one that I feel as if I will like even more on coming back to it in the future, which I most certainly will. It’s well worth the watch for anyone, and I really must read the book sometime soon.

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“I suppose, like many old people, I sometimes think we are merely passing figures in a godless universe.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review

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