A Passage to India (1984)

Dir. David Lean. Starring Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft

In The Love Bug, Jim Douglas does not want that little car at first. If Herbie were some average automobile, then the movie would be over in five minutes. (Or, alternately, might have taken a very dark and un-Disney turn as Dean Jones plays an ex-hotshot who turns to alcohol while Buddy Hackett bawls over him.) But Herbie is not, and he follows Douglas around until he finally decides to keep the car. A Passage to India has a similar problem, but instead of a cute little VW, it’s Alec Guinness. Every now and then A Passage to India seems to really be getting on its way, but then Godbole shows up and in a movie that must have a thousand Indian extras, we get the white guy in the brown makeup and the little turban. The choice is not necessarily surprising, as Guinness had played Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia, much to the dismay of more progressive viewers for the rest of time. But it is baffling to see Guinness here. This is a movie with veterans Saeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth in the supporting cast. (As the lawyer Amit Rao, Seth gets the movie’s finest one-liner in response to a suggestion that Aziz was irresistably attracted to Adela on the basis of race, and that she was disinterested in him likewise: “Even when the lady is less attractive than the gentleman?” The Indians in the gallery laugh. I did too. Roshan Seth is a treasure.) Victor Banerjee, a relative newcomer and hardly commensurate in name recognition with the white actors in the film, is the movie’s real star. Nor is it the early ’60s any longer, when you could say “It was certainly as racist then as it is now, but there is the small consideration that this was basically standard practice.” It is better than twenty years since Lawrence, and still we have to deal with this mess. Mercifully, Godbole is a fairly minor character, but every one of those scenes elicited a groan from me.

What Godbole is, really, is a giant shrieking siren for the orientalism that A Passage to India uses as its engine for 163 minutes. India changes people, Mrs. Moore (Ashcroft) tells her young companion, Adela (Davis), and just ugh. What it turns out to do is make a nice girl from England susceptible to the marvel of sex, which she appears to learn about from some ancient statues and then hallucinates grandly in the remote Marabar Caves. The caves are liable to create remarkable echoes, ones that no white person in this film can stand. Mrs. Moore enters one of them, is leveled by the noise and her claustrophobia, and declines to enter another. Adela, in the darkness, hearing the echoes of her own name, unsure of her engagement to Ronny (Nigel Havers) and her attraction to Aziz (Banerjee), loses her mind. She sprints at speed down the mountain, triggering a tiny avalanche and picking up scores of cactus spines on the way. Mystically, Mrs. Moore can feel that something’s gone wrong. The overall effect of this key thematic idea, that a young Western woman in repressive times cannot take control over her sexuality because of the esoteric Eastern surroundings, is to make orientalism the primary failure of A Passage to India. In film this may be the most textbook example of this sexual orientalism since Lost Horizon.

For that reason, A Passage to India is also a fascinating case study for a question which I think concerns many movie lovers: where is the line of racism that turns great filmmaking into unwatchable morass? Everyone has one, rather as everyone has such a line for the people in their life. Is it The Birth of a Nation, or Gone with the Wind, or Touch of Evil, or Ben-Hur, or Lawrence of Arabia, or Argo? (Feel free to exclude Argo from your list of great films, because I know I sure have.) For me, and it’s certainly not an interpretation I would force anyone else to have, it’s three parts “What else is going on with race in this film?” and one part “How old is this thing?” And for me, despite losing points every time for its 1984 release, A Passage to India belongs with Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia as opposed to The Birth of a Nation or Argo. It may be a sermon for orientalism, but the film is clearly on the side of a free India, clearly against its pro-imperialist characters, and centers on Aziz more than any other single character. There is never a doubt that Aziz is an innocent man, either. Mrs. Moore, Fielding (James Fox), and the Indians in the movie are placed against sahibs like Mrs. Moore’s son, Ronny, and other ugly tools of the British Empire.

Towards the end of the film, Aziz has dropped his traditional Western clothing for the clothing of men in the future Pakistan. The shalwar kameez is entirely white, and he wears a charcoal Jinnah cap. After being tried for the rape of a white Englishwoman and, miraculously, having gone free, he has given up on everything and everyone English. Fielding, a friend who resigned from the social club in protest when Aziz was arrested, has gone to congratulate Aziz on his freedom; Aziz, however, is certain that Fielding is moving in romantically on the woman who very nearly got him killed, and he rejects him. Later on, after her has moved far away from the scene of his misfortune, he will tear up the letters that Fielding sends him and refuse to answer; he believes that the wife he has taken is Adela, and only when Fielding tracks Aziz down with Godbole’s help does Aziz see that Fielding has not married her. The film’s final scene sees him writing a letter to Adela, thanking her for having done the right thing in the end and complimenting her courage. It’s all far less grating than one expects. Aziz’s fury is entirely justified, and the film does not do much to curtail it. It gives him some time to cool off, makes his reunion with Fielding cool but cordial, and ultimately complicates that letter. He may have become capable of forgiving Adela—understandably, I think, for the film has spent its entire length depicting a gentle man—but Adela has not necessarily learned to forgive herself. We watch her read this letter, and Davis performs the scene silently and sadly. It is raining outside. She gets up, looks outside, paces a little bit. The movie, in other words, has grounds to allow a viewer the leeway to forgive her or otherwise. It hardly reverses the orientalism within the film or scrubs the makeup off Alec Guinness, but this is not a one-sided plea for a reductive vision of 1920s India. The movie is summed up when Fielding sings “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze” to himself as he gets dressed. Either it’s a brilliant comment on sympathetic white Englishman who are still wrapped up in the supposed mystique of the East, or it’s one of those “Gilbert and Sullivan are the most English thing in the world” characterizations. My head thinks the latter; my heart says he didn’t sing “My Name is John Wellington Wells.”

There’s a scene where Adela, who has come to India as much to understand the country and its people as she has to see her longtime boyfriend again, decides to break up with Ronny. He’s made some derogatory remarks about Aziz’s dress (which was explained a couple scenes earlier in that “The Sun Whose Rays…” sequence when Aziz sacrificed a collar-pin for Fielding out of kindness), turned them into a generalization about Indians, and made himself awfully nasty in front of his saintly mother and his well-meaning girlfriend. While they’re watching a polo match, Adela turns to Ronny and tells him that she doesn’t think they should get married. Their conversation is phlegmatic rather than disruptive, and they agree that they’ve handled this breakup in a very English way. It sums up the acting in this movie nicely, I think; if this is a showcase film for orientalism, it’s also one for a particularly English brand of acting. Davis may be Australian, but her performance is impeccably reserved in that terribly English way. Nigel Havers is probably most famous for playing Lindsay in Chariots of Fire, who is a milkshake made of the various stereotypes of the English nobility. James Fox, who is one of the leaders of overall screen time, is almost strange to me as a sympathetic character because I’d always seen him as a very closed-teeth English villain. Best of the lot is Peggy Ashcroft, a transplanted Old Vic type whose Mrs. Moore is simply perfect.

For as much of the film needs to appear in courtrooms and clubs, primly false gardens and muddy streets, Lean cannot restrain himself from those shots which are entirely his. A Passage to India is perhaps 85% of Lawrence of Arabia in its visual beauty, a percentage that very few movies can aspire to, and Lean finds most of his best shots in natural settings. Deep midnight blue against white permeates a mosque overlooking the Ganges. The sojourn to the Marabar Caves does not shy away from the rusty oranges of the dirt and the deep color of the stones. The best, of course, is saved for last, when individual shots of the Himalayas dominate for a couple of minutes without any serious reference to the plot of the film itself. After Lean photographed them, it seems like a waste that anyone else should have.

2 thoughts on “A Passage to India (1984)

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