"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 4, 2012

Classic Film: "A Passage to India" (1984) by David Lean

How was colonialism possible? I am not asking how European civilization could think it was meant to lead the world - after all China thought the same in the past with its "Central Kingdom" ideology and Japan also considered itself a chosen "country of the gods." No, how could those small European countries subdue whole continents like India? Superior weapons would have meant nothing if entire populations had risen up against them. The only reason I can think of why it worked is bluff - pure bluff - and that is why colonialism crumbled so quickly when the European countries lost their ability to bluff after the devastation of WWII.

A Passage to India (1984) by director David Lean and faithfully based on the novel by E.M. Forster, is a story about India in the latter days of colonialism. Many things are typical, such as the contrast between the British segment of the town with its broad empty streets and roomy villas and the crowd-ridden, noisy, dusty Indian town. The English live their lives separate from the local population - except the necessary servants - contact means trouble, for "East is East and West is West." They have Indian policemen and soldiers on their side - those among the local population supporting colonialism are even more cruel to their own countrymen than the colonial authorities in this "game of bluff."

A young Englishwoman, Adela Quested (Judy Davis), travels with her would-be mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), to Chandrapore. She wants to see India for herself before giving the yes-word to the son of the open-minded and kind Mrs Moore. Both newcomers are interested in learning about Indian culture and distressed by the boorish and overbearing attitude of the ruling British, of whom the son, Ronny (Nigel Havers), a colonial administrator, is an especially low specimen. Each time they think he is finally going to show them India, they are disappointed when he takes them for umpteenth time to the British club, to a polo match, or to a ladies tea circle. Adela seriously considers breaking off her engagement.

Mrs. Moore has a delightful chance meeting in a Mosque with the young and intelligent doctor Aziz (Victor Banerjee). She and Adela are also introduced to an English professor, Richard Fielding (James Fox), who is the only Brit in town respectful of Indian culture, and he brings them in contact with other Indians like Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness). But when Adela goes alone on a cycling trip, she comes across an Indian temple ruin with male and female deities in sexual embraces, which upsets her very much, Victorianesque-inhibited as she is, even more so as she is finally chased away by a troop of aggressive wild monkeys...

Dr. Aziz makes good on a lightly given promise and takes her and Mrs. Moore on a tour of the mysterious Marabar caves, empty save for a strange echo. They travel by train and elephant. When Mrs. Moore is too tired to continue, Adela proceeds alone with Dr Aziz to an upper level of the caves, and later comes on her own storming down the mountainside, breaking through a field of cacti. She is hysterical and accuses Dr. Aziz of attempted rape. What has really happened to her?

A trial follows, in the town anti-British feelings run high. Cultural mistrust and false accusations are rife. In the end, the case falls apart - it was all due to Adela's high-strung imagination of the ruined temple type, she entered a cave alone and lost contact with Aziz who looked for her in vain -, but the hurt Dr. Aziz will have nothing to do anymore with the tricky British, not even with his friend Richard Fielding...

Lean has made a large movie on the scale of his previous masterworks Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, and perhaps even better in quality. The plot is slight, but all the better so, for film does not exist on behalf of plot. In various anecdotes from daily life, Lean shows us what life was like in colonial India, how ignorant and full of bluff the British were and how angry and hurt the Indians. Victor Banerjee gives a wonderful performance, and also Peggy Ashcroft and Judy Davis are great (Alec Guinness, in contrast, overacts and should never have been allowed to play an Indian professor as his capabilities were mainly in the comic field - Lean apparently was so wise throw away much of his footage). All things considered, the film walks a fine line between the Indian and British sides of the colonial divide - while showing that eventually the Indians had history on their side.