A Passage to India (1984)


In the 1920s, a young woman, Adela Quested (Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives), travels to British India with her fiancé’s mother, Mrs. Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft, The 39 Steps), but cultural differences turn the trip into a living nightmare.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate.”

Based on the E.M. Forster novel of the same name, A Passage to India marked British filmmaker David Lean’s long-awaited return to the big screen after a fourteen-year break. Many observers waited impatiently to see if the old master still had the magic touch and most people, myself included, thought that director Lean had indeed hit a home run with what would turn out to be his last film — A Passage to India is an intelligent, richly textured exercise in how “East is East, and West is West.”

A Passage to India wasn’t originally intended to be Lean’s comeback movie. Sadly, it took the director years to get over the critical failure of his 1970 epic-scale melodrama, the unjustly maligned Ryan’s Daughter, but when Lean was ready to make another movie, the filmmaker set his eyes on a film about history’s most famous mutiny, the one that occurred aboard the HMS Bounty in the 18th century.

Disappointed with the previous versions of the story, Lean was eager to create a more accurate depiction of the events. He shopped the project around, but couldn’t find the necessary financial backing (the film was eventually made in 1984, with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins). That’s when Lean was offered the chance to adapt Forster’s novel, which fulfilled Lean’s long-held dream of making a movie in India.

On this occasion, Lean had no problems finding financial support. The producers did insist that A Passage to India had to be shot in a non-widescreen ratio (the producers were eyeing the TV market). Being a master of 70mm Panavision, this was a real blow to the director’s creativity — apparently, Lean never got over this concession. Personally, I thought Ernest Day’s (Burning Secret) camera work was very good. 

At first glance, the film appears to be another elegant “period piece,” but there’s more here than meets the eye. A Passage to India goes to the very essence of the British occupation of India, or any occupation for that matter, providing the viewer with a valid moral lesson about the evils of Imperialism that remains true to this date. In addition, A Passage to India tackles universal themes of xenophobia and freedom.

Lean uses the female protagonist, Adela, to illustrate British wrongheadedness. Her story parallels the tale of a naïve Indian doctor, Aziz (Victor Banerjee, Bitter Moon). Adela and Aziz mature almost simultaneously, thus becoming the perfect agents of change. Author Forster is responsible for creating the story and characters, but I’ll give director Lean credit for bringing out Forster’s complex ideas clearly and concisely.

As usual, Lean had lots of issues with his crew and actors. According to the book David Lean: A Biography by Kevin Brownlow, actress Judy Davis didn’t get along with Lean. Banerjee and Dame Peggy Ashcroft also butt heads with the director, and Lean’s “frenemy,” Sir Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai), who plays Indian scholar Godbole, stopped speaking to the man responsible for his film career after the director cut down his role considerably (they eventually patched things up).

Speaking of Guinness, the actor seems a bit lost here. I didn’t really mind his politically-incorrect dark make-up, but Guinness’s scenes aren’t strong enough. Something is missing here, and Guinness blamed Lean for ruining his performance in the editing room. On the other hand, Lean insisted that Guinness’s overacting forced him to trim down the role — maybe the truth is somewhere in between.

Ironically, what you will remember most about this film is the great acting. Davis is absolutely brilliant, and Ashcroft received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Banerjee is pretty great too. The cast also includes James Fox (Thoroughly Modern Millie) as Fielding, Richard Wilson (A Dry White Season) as Turton and Roshan Seth (Gandhi) as Amritrao. Lean’s then wife, Sandra Hotz, plays Stella. Maurice Jarre’s (Doctor Zhivago) Oscar-winning music score is fantastic.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

A Passage to India was never meant to be David Lean’s last hurrah. The director toyed with the idea of filming J. G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (producer Steve Spielberg took over the project), before choosing Joseph Conrad’s book Nostromo as his next movie. He died in 1991 while working on the screenplay (Conrad’s book was made into a TV mini-series). A Passage to India is the perfect swan song for one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers. Color, 164 minutes, Rated PG.

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