Monday, February 13, 2017
A Passage to India
Based on the novel by E.M. Forster and a play by Santha Rama Rau, A Passage to India is the story of class conflict in colonial India where a false charge of rape trouble relations between the British and Indians. Written for the screen, edited, and directed by David Lean, the film is a study of class and racial identity in 1920s India where a woman copes with her actions and how it affects change during a tense time in Indian history. Starring Peggy Ashcroft, Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, James Fox, Nigel Havers, and Alec Guinness. A Passage to India is a rich and majestic film from David Lean.
Set during a tumultuous period during British-colonial India, the film revolves around a young woman who arrives to the country wanting to discover India with her beau’s mother as they befriend an Indian doctor whom the young woman would later accuse of rape during an outing. It’s a film that play into events that would shape a country and its relation with the British during a time when British was ruling India as there is this divide between them. Especially when it’s in the hands of a woman whose interest in India behind British influence would eventually get her into a world of the unknown where she becomes confused and lost. Even as there are forces in both the upper-class British and the people favoring India’s independence from Britain would use this woman and this kind doctor in a trial.
David Lean’s screenplay doesn’t just explore this cultural and social divide between the British and India but also a number of intervals with an interest towards each other’s cultures. The film’s first act is about the arrival of Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) as the latter is arriving to see her son Ronny (Nigel Havers) who is engaged to the former. Upon their arrival, they’re surrounded by many British expatriates who live in posh and lavish homes that is very clean which is a direct contrast to the poor and shabby condition of the people in India. It’s something that Mrs. Moore notices as she wants to see India as it is as does Adela where they both wonder why Indians are not allowed to enter British country clubs. Mrs. Moore would meet Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee) who is hoping to be accepted by the British as he is intrigued by the kindness of Mrs. Moore as he would also find a friend in the local school superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox). Fielding would introduce Mrs. Moore and Adela to a scholar in Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness) who is an eccentric with unique views on the world and life.
The second act is about this journey to the Marabar Caves in the country where Fielding misses the train leaving Dr. Ahmed to accompany Adela and Mrs. Moore to the caves. It’s the moment in the film where Adela’s own interest towards India, that included an earlier solo journey to ruins, would come to ahead as her own sense of emotional anguish towards Ronny and the blistering heat of the country would create chaos. Especially when Dr. Ahmed becomes a victim of a lie with Fielding and Mrs. Moore knowing that he’s innocent but the British residents already have opinions that Dr. Ahmed did rape Adela because he’s Indian. The script doesn’t just showcase this cultural and social divide but also the beginning of Britain’s rule on India as the third act is about the aftermath of the trial. An aftermath that does have some serious consequence for those involved as well as revelations about the identities of its characters.
Lean’s direction is definitely vast in its setting as well as the scale of the story for its tumultuous time period. Shot on the Cinemascope film stock on a 1:85:1 aspect ratio and largely on various locations in India with some interiors shot at Shepperton Studios in Britain. Lean definitely uses a lot of wide shots to capture the gorgeous locations with great depth of field of the mountains and forests while creating something that is also intimate for some of the scenes in the streets with the medium shots. The scenes set in the country clubs and British residences have this air of space and openness that is beautiful but also quite stuffy to play up the sense of arrogance of those residents. The scenes set in the streets and slums in India are definitely more crowded and shabby to play the contrast of the world of the British living in India. The character of Dr. Ahmed is someone who is Indian but wants to be part of that world of British society as he is dressed early in the film like many of the British residents as it kind of represents this conflict of identity.
Also serving as the film’s editor, Lean would go for something straightforward with some dissolves and montages for scenes in the trial where Adela tries to remember what happened. It adds to a lot of the drama and elements of suspense where it is about the event that would put the relations between Britain and India on the line. The scenes set on the actual Barabar Caves as the Marabar Caves would have this air of mystique that would play into Adela’s own mind as there is something about that couldn’t be explained. The film’s third act that revolve around the trial’s aftermath play into this further division between the British and Indians with a few of them in the middle who aren’t happy in how things played out. Especially as some reject their own identities with some grudgingly accept their own roles in the world. Overall, Lean creates a ravishing and riveting film about a young woman’s encounter with Indian culture and the trouble she unknowingly causes over relations between Britain and India.
Cinematographer Ernest Day does brilliant work with the photography in capturing some of the gorgeous exterior scenes in the day including the interior in the caves with natural light as well as some of the beauty of some of the exterior scenes at night along with some of its interiors. Production designer John Box, along with art directors Cliff Robinson, Leslie Tomkins, Herbert Westbrook and Ram Yedekar as well as set decorator Hugh Scaife, does amazing work with the sets from the club houses and homes of the British residents to the shabby look of the home of Dr. Ahmed. Costume designer Judy Moorcroft does fantastic work with the costumes from the clothes that the British women wear as well as the clothes of the men including the suits that Dr. Ahmed wear as well as the clothes that many of the Indian citizens wear.
The sound work of Graham V. Hartstone, Nicolas Le Messurier, Michael A. Carter, and John W. Mitchell do excellent work with the sound from the way many of the raucous sounds of the street is captured as well as the eerie tension that is heard during the trial scene. The film’s music by Maurice Jarre is incredible for its mixture of bombastic and serene orchestral flourishes with some lush string sounds as well as bits of traditional Indian music to play into the setting of the Indian landscape.
The casting by Priscilla John is superb as it include notable small roles and appearances from Sandra Hotz as Mrs. Moore’s daughter Stella, Art Malik and Saeed Jeffrey as a couple of Dr. Ahmed’s friends who try to represent him on trial, Roshan Seth as Dr. Ahmed’s attorney with pro-Indian independence ideas, Richard Wilson and Antonia Pemberton as a rich British couple in the Turtons who are very prejudiced toward the Indians, Ann Firbank as Mrs. Callender, and Clive Swift as Major Callender as a British resident who tries to manipulate Adela over what happened. Michael Culver is terrific as British official Major McBryde who serves as the prosecutor for trial of Dr. Ahmed while Nigel Havers is fantastic as Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny Heaslop as a magistrate who is engaged to Adela as he is also very prejudiced towards Indians as he doesn’t think they have a lot to offer socially or politically.
Alec Guinness is excellent as Professor Godbole as an eccentric spiritual figure who is a friend of Fielding as he serves as someone that is just trying to stay away from the political turmoil of India as he’s more about concerned about spirituality. James Fox is brilliant as Richard Fielding as a British school superintendent who is a friend of Dr. Ahmed as he tries to figure out what is going on while being disgusted with the prejudice of many of his British colleagues as he is this very kind person that represents the best aspects of humanity. Victor Banjeree is amazing as Dr. Aziz Ahmed as a kind Indian doctor that is hoping to be entered into British society and be accepted while understanding the tension that is looming where he later finds itself in the middle of this conflict where he becomes an unknowing pawn all because of a false accusation.
Peggy Ashcroft is radiant as Mrs. Moore as an old woman traveling to India to see her son as she is amazed by the intoxicating beauty of India but is also aware of the prejudice from the British towards the Indians as she is disgusted by it while not wanting to be involved in the trial knowing that it will never play fair. Finally, there’s Judy Davis in a remarkable performance as Adela Quested as a young woman who is eager to see India as it is where she copes with being engaged to Ronny while dealing with an accusation she unknowingly made as it’s a very chilling yet ravishing performance from Davis.
A Passage to India is a phenomenal film from David Lean. Featuring a great ensemble cast, beautiful images of the Indian locations, an enchanting score, and a riveting story. It’s a film that definitely bear a lot of the hallmarks of epics but also play into India’s unique history and the seeds to be independent from the British empire. In the end, A Passage to India is a sensational film from David Lean.
David Lean Films: In Which We Serve - This Happy Breed - Blithe Spirit - Brief Encounter - Great Expectations (1946 film) - Oliver Twist (1948 film) - The Passionate Friends - Madeleine (1950 film) - The Sound Barrier - Hobson’s Choice - (Summertime (1955 film)) - The Bridge on the River Kwai - Lawrence of Arabia - Doctor Zhivago - Ryan's Daughter - (Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor) - (The Auteurs #75: David Lean)
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