The movie version, adapted, directed, and edited by David Lean, is an admirable piece of work. Lean doesn’t get in over his head by trying for the full range of the book’s mysticism, but Forster got to him.
A Passage to India (1984)


by Pauline Kael

The title of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India is an homage to one of the loveliest sections in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and, unlike Forster’s other, more neatly constructed novels, this one has an all-embracing, polymorphous quality, an openness. Forster had lived in India before and after the First World War, and in story terms the novel, published in 1924, is about the tragicomedy of British colonial rule. The liberal, agnostic author projects himself into the Indian characters—into the humiliation they feel at being governed by people who have no affection for them, who don’t like them. In its larger intentions, the novel is about the Indians’ spirituality, their kindness, their mysticism. The novel’s flowing, accepting manner is related to Eastern philosophy. It embodies that philosophy, yet when Forster attempts to explain it— when he tries for mystery and depth—the writing seems thin, fuzzy, inflated. (When his exaltation goes flat, it’s like flat Whitman; it’s like hearing someone dither on about oneness with the universe.) I don’t think the novel is great—it’s near-great, or not-so-great, maybe because mysticism doesn’t come naturally to an ironist, and in A Passage to India it seems more willed than felt. But the novel is suggestive and dazzlingly emphatic. Forster never falls into mere sympathetic understanding of the Indians; he’s right inside the central Indian character— the young Muslim Dr. Aziz. He embraces Aziz, all right; it’s the British he pulls away from.

The movie version, adapted, directed, and edited by David Lean, is an admirable piece of work. Lean doesn’t get in over his head by trying for the full range of the book’s mysticism, but Forster got to him. In its first half, the film (it lasts two hours forty-three minutes) has a virtuoso steadiness as the story moves along and we see the process by which the British officials and their wives, who arrive in the fictitious provincial city of Chandrapore with idealistic hopes of friendship with the Indians, are gradually desensitized to the shame experienced by the natives, and
become imperviously cruel. The movie shows us the virtual impossibility of communication between the subject people and the master-race British, and between the Muslims and the Hindus, at the same time that we observe the efforts of two Englishwomen to bridge the gulfs—to get to know the Indians socially.

Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), an elderly woman, whose son Ronny (Nigel Havers) has been in India for a year as city magistrate in Chandrapore, comes to visit him, accompanied, at his suggestion, by Adela Quested (Judy Davis), whom he expects to marry. Mrs. Moore is displeased to see her son turning into a dull sahib, and the young, inexperienced Miss Quested, who has never been out of England before, is shocked by Ronny’s new callousness and the smugness of the people he emulates. Mrs. Moore, who has little patience with her son and his warnings about the dangers of mingling with the natives, strikes up an immediate, instinctive rapport with Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee). a glistening-eyed, eager doctor-poet, whom she meets by chance in a mosque. And later the two women have tea with Fielding (James Fox), the principal of the local Government College, who, to help them socialize, invites two Indian guests—Aziz and a Hindu scholar, Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness). Dr. Aziz, a bit heady with the joys of this social intercourse with English women who treat him as an equal, and unable to invite the group to his squalid one-room cottage, proposes an excursion—a picnic at the distant Marabar Caves.

And that’s where, despite Aziz’s careful, elaborate planning, everything comes to grief. Hearing the echo in a cave, Mrs. Moore is overcome by heat and fatigue, premonitions of death, and the feeling of a void where God should be. While Mrs. Moore rests, Miss Quested goes on alone with Dr. Aziz and a guide, and soon comes rushing from a cave suffering, perhaps, from what Whitman called “unloos’d dreams”—she is hysterical, and is convinced that Dr. Aziz has attempted to rape her. He is arrested, and the British, with their surface unflappability and their underlying paranoia about the Indians, react as if they were under siege. The British colony closes ranks, except for Fielding, who asserts his belief in the doctor’s innocence, and the now irritable and distressed Mrs. Moore, who, without waiting to testify on the doctor’s behalf, starts the journey home. For the others, the supposed attack on Miss Quested is further proof of the racial inferiority of the Indians. Besides, as the Superintendent of Police explains at the trial, it’s a matter of scientific knowledge that the darker races are attracted to the fairer, but not vice versa.

Forster’s plot is a very elaborate shell game: in the book, just when you think the nugget of truth about Miss Quested’s accusation has been located Forster evades you again. He’s very lordly, in his way; it’s a cosmic comedy—each group of players has its own God. (The inscrutable Hindus, with their policy of self-removal, are wittier than the British Christians, with their disdain. The Muslims are anxious.) Lean isn’t as playful, but he has his own form of lordliness. He knows how to do pomp and the moral hideousness of empire better than practically anybody else around. He enlarges the scale of Forster’s irony, and the characters live in more sumptuous settings than we might have expected. But they do live. Lean knows how to give the smallest inflections an overpowering psychological weight. The actors don’t sink under it.

Lean’s control—a kind of benign precision—is very satisfying here, because of the performers (and the bright-colored, fairy-tale vividness of the surroundings). By the time he gets to the trial, everything has been prepared, and, in a departure from Forster’s mode, he delivers suspense, drama, excitement. The courtroom scenes are far more climactic than in the novel, but Lean has necessarily shaped the material to his own strengths. This isn’t the Passage to India that Satyajit Ray hoped to make—though he, too, wanted Victor Banerjee to play Dr. Aziz (and he had met with Peggy Ashcroft). And perhaps Ray might have been able to convey the spiritual grace that Forster was reaching for. But Lean’s picture is intelligent and enjoyable, and if his technique is to simplify and to spell everything out in block letters, this kind of clarity has its own formal strength. It may not be the highest praise to say that a movie is orderly and dignified or that it’s like a well-cared-for, beautifully oiled machine, but of its kind this Passage to India is awfully good, until the last half hour or so. Having built up to the courtroom drama, Lean isn’t able to regain a narrative flow when it’s over. The emotional focus is gone, the tension has snapped, and the picture disintegrates. The concluding scenes, in which he follows the general plan of the book, wobble all over the place. But by then we’re pretty well satisfied anyway, and we don’t mind staying a little longer with these actors, even though they seem lost.

The cast is just about irreproachable, with the exception of Guinness, who’s simply in the wrong movie. The presence of Victor Banerjee makes you feel embarrassed for Guinness. It’s dangerous for an actor to try that Peter Sellers-Indian routine when he’s next to the real thing. (You keep expecting Guinness to break into a soft-shoe or do something silly with his turban.) As Dr. Aziz, the slim, compact Banerjee, with his handsome, delicately modelled face (the round eyes, the cupid’s-bow mouth), belongs to this society—he’s like a piece of erotic sculpture, a sensual cherub. When he gets ready to go out, he puts a black line under his eyes with a swift, practiced motion; he makes the most of his beauty. This soft-voiced Bengali actor is more fluid emotionally than anyone else in the cast; Dr. Aziz’s feelings of generosity, servility, hurt, and rage slide into each other, and we get the impression that this is what trying to please the British has done to the man. He’s too easily hurt; he’s all exposed nerves and excitability. He’s the most “human” of the characters, because he’s so far from being like the English—and the more he tries to be like them, the farther away he is.

As Miss Quested, Judy Davis has none of the bloom that she had in My Brilliant Career; she’s pale and a trace remote—repression has given her a slightly slugged quality about the eyes. But she’s still very attractive in Western terms. Her broad-brimmed hats and virginal, straight-cut dresses are simple and uncoquettish. You like watching her —she has an unusual physical quiet, and her mouth is very expressive (despite the brick-colored lipstick she wears throughout). And it’s clear that India represents her first chance to live. She longs for adventure, though she’s frightened of it. And she’s drawn to Dr. Aziz, though she doesn’t know how to get closer to him. So it isn’t until the trial that we register that to the Indians she looks tall, flat-chested, and sexually undesirable. To them the charge of attempted rape is something of an insult to Dr. Aziz’s taste. All along, there’s a lascivious fear that runs through the proper behavior of the British—a fear of India’s voluptuous erotic traditions. And Lean has interpolated a sequence that makes this unmistakable: alone on a bicycle ride, Miss Quested chances upon an overgrown park with a temple covered with statuary—coupling bodies. She’s fascinated, and as she walks about looking at what the statues are doing she seems transformed—awakened and beautiful. But the statues are suddenly swarming—a bunch of chattering, screeching monkeys come down to the bottom of the temple and onto the statues. They’re like little demons blending with the lovers, and they charge at Miss Quested, terrifying her, and chase her as she dashes away on her bike. This dramatization of Miss Quested’s fear of sex is very effective. (It’s actually more effective than the major episode of Marabar.) But we can feel its function: it’s to cue us for her hysteria at the caves, and that’s not how Forster’s material works. (Lean gives us a pointed reminder of the temple scene when Miss Quested is on her way to the courthouse and a man in a monkey suit jumps on the running board. This is a real blunder; for a second, it throws us out of the movie.) But Judy Davis’s performance is close to perfection; her last scene (in England) is a little skewed, but that’s no more than a flyspeck. Despite her moment of hysteria, this Miss Quested is a heroically honest figure who, in testifying as she does at the trial, escapes being raped of her soul by Ronny and the British colonial community.

As Mrs. Moore, Peggy Ashcroft comes through with a piece of transcendent acting. She has to, because Mrs. Moore is meant to be a saint, a sage, a woman in tune with the secrets of eternity. Forster never devised anything for her to do; in the novel, she simply is a sacred being —she’s an enigma, like Professor Godbole. It may have been in an attempt to convey her wisdom that Lean gave her what is probably the worst line in the script: “India forces one to come face to face with oneself. It can be rather disturbing.” (Substitute “Transylvania,” and that’s a line for Dracula to speak.) Except for Mrs. Moore’s brief rapport with Aziz, who tells her she has the kindest face he has ever seen on an English lady, she’s simply a weary, practical-minded woman who’s very sure of things. She’s not much of a mother—she’s quite out of sympathy with her son Ronny—and she has no particular feeling for Miss Quested. She’s a cantankerous old lady, yet Peggy Ashcroft breathes so much good sense into the role that Mrs. Moore acquires a radiance, a spiritual glow. It makes us like her. Fielding, the character who behaves most courageously, doesn’t seem to have stirred Forster’s imagination much; Forster was probably too much like Fielding for Fielding to interest him. The character is always on the verge of being too decent, but James Fox (he was the weakling master turned slavey in The Servant) gives the part a doggedness that saves it.

The novel wants to be about unresolvability; the movie doesn’t, and isn’t. What’s remarkable about the film is how two such different temperaments as Forster’s and Lean’s could come together. There’s a tie that binds them, though: Lean certainly hasn’t softened Forster’s condemnation of the British officials’ poisonous thick-skinned detachment. Like the book, the movie is a lament for British sins; the big difference is in tone. The movie is informed by a spirit of magisterial self-hatred. That’s its oddity: Lean’s grand “objective” manner—he never touches anything without defining it and putting it in its place—seems to have developed out of the values he attacks. It’s an imperial bookkeeper’s style—no loose ends. It’s also the style that impressed the Indians, and shamed them because they couldn’t live up to it. It’s the style of the conqueror —who is here the guilt-ridden conqueror but the conqueror nevertheless. Lean has an appetite for grandeur. That may explain why, at the start, he puts the Viceroy on the ship with the two women (and why, the caves in India not being imposing enough, he dynamited and made his own). But his appetite for grandeur also accounts for such memorable images as the red uniforms and headgear on the Indian band mangling Western music in the brilliant sunshine at the whites-only club, and the ancient painted elephant that lurches along from the train to the caves with Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Quested on its back.

The New Yorker, January 14, 1985


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