#125 A Passage To India
(1984, David Lean)
“Life rarely gives us what we want at the moment we consider appropriate”
Ah, The British Empire. When Great Britain showed the world just how Great it was, sailing around, stopping off in countries and introducing its marvellous customs and traditions on the locals, and the locals all happily accepting those customs and traditions. The guns being pointed at their faces probably helped. Funnily enough, some countries weren’t too happy with being colonised by the British, and chose to fight back against Imperial rule. I wonder why.
Must admit, that as a British citizen, I cannot stand the idea of my country travelling around the world, snatching up bits it liked and deciding it owned them all. Sadly, this isn’t a universal view, since there seems to be an overbearing feeling that many people in Britain mourn the end of the Empire to this day.
So naturally, I was wary when it came to sitting down and watching a movie about Colonised India made by a British studio with a British cast and a British director. Got the feeling India would get a raw deal out of this.
First, the plot. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), two society ladies, travel to India from England to visit Adela’s fiancé and Moore’s son Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), who is also the local magistrate in Chandrapore. After tiring of the Anglicised version of the Raj consisting of cricket and afternoon tea, Adela requests to see the “real” India. Through the help of local doctor Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and college superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), the ladies go on a trip to some nearby caves. However, things take a turn for the worse when something happens to Adela in the caves and accusations of attempted rape are made against Dr Aziz.
Well, you know I said I was concerned that this would be a very pro-British-Empire movie? I was incredibly wrong. The British actually get a raw deal in all of this. From the outset, the movie seems determined to make you hate much of the British cast (Davis and Fox’s characters being key exceptions), since they spend much of their time stuffily parading around acting pompous, lording it over the Indians as if they’re superior. Scenes are rampant of them pointing in awe at Indians with a general attitude that screams “look at the silly brown people”, and the afternoon tea and cricket come across as suitably dull activities that no one would ever want to be part of.
Not that the movie itself shares the characters’ sentiments. As soon as Dr Aziz is introduced, he lights up the screen, and manages to charm the audience as well as Mrs Moore. He’s an intelligent, well-spoken character with a great sense of humour and it’s certainly down to Banerjee’s absolutely stellar performance. It’s hard to say the movie gives Indians a raw deal with the best actor in the movie is Indian.
Not to mention, the most likeable British characters are the ones that interact with the locals as human beings. Mrs Moore is a lovely character, quick to disown the pampering British society provides, and Fielding is the voice of reason in an insane world, since he has befriended many within in the Indian community as well as being part of the British establishment.
Also, when the movie takes a dark turn for the second half, following the rape accusations, the British seriously get a hammering. The film seems to ramp up the characters’ blatant racism and pig-headed refusal to look at genuine facts. We as the audience side with Dr Aziz due to how downright awful the British characters are. And still we’re made aware of how absurd it is for them to have these attitudes when the British were the ones who stormed in and took control away from the Indians themselves. The British are unquestionably the bad guys here, something not seen much outside of Hollywood, and certainly not much in movies actually made in Britain.
I honestly wasn’t expecting to enjoy A Passage To India, so I was pleasantly surprised when I did. Even its three hour running time didn’t feel like a chore because the movie is well-paced. In particular, the absurd, nightmare-like trial that takes up a good chunk of the final hour of the movie is appropriately tense. There are one or two scenes that feel a little awkwardly placed, but generally these are easily overlooked.
Overall, A Passage To India is a very fine film, and manages to not only criticise British colonialism while being made in Britain, but it also managed to avoid living up to my expectations of all old British movies being stuffy and awkward. Well done, Mr Lean.
Starring Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Nigel Havers & Alec Guinness
Written by E.M. Forster (novel) and David Lean
Produced by John Brabourne & Richard B. Goodwin
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography by Ernest Day
Edited by David Lean
Favourite Scene: The trial scenes that make up the climax of the movie are incredibly tense, and I really didn’t know what was going to happen with them. Edge of your seat stuff!
Scene That Bugged Me: Adela gets attacked by monkeys in a scene that pretty much contributes to nothing
Watch it if: You hate colonialism
Avoid it if: You miss The Great Empire