E.M. Forster’s novel “A Passage To India” is a stirring examination of the British colonial adventure in India in the early part of the last...

A Passage To India

E.M. Forster’s novel “A Passage To India” is a stirring examination of the British colonial adventure in India in the early part of the last century and it wasn’t to be a surprised that the movie adaptation of this should echo the same sentiments. In our territory, we were exposed to copious writings that lament Spain’s often-cruel stranglehold of the Philippines but only the compatriots of the stricken land---the Filipino freedom fighters themselves---had penned them all. In this epic movie however, we are offered a rare glimpse of what colonialism is all about, in everything that is good or bad about it, in the eyes of the colonizer’s own subjects.

David Lean achieved what other great film helmsmen hasn’t by capping his nearly half a century long film career with “A Passage To India”, a reasonably huge saga of racial conflict set amongst the gigantically colorful background of Indian society and culture, in a time around the birth of a nation.

In this movie, a younger Judy Davies essayed the role of Adela Quested, an English maiden on a trip to India to meet her fiancée Ronny Heaslop, the British Magistrate of Chandrapore, a locality of India. She was accompanied by her fiancee’s mother, the aged but still elegant Mrs. Moore played by no other than the great English dame Penny Ashcroft. When the two finally arrived in India, Adela and Mrs. Moore became instantly fascinated with the vibrancy of the Indian way of life as they glided through the marketplaces of the mystic streets of Chandrapore. It is perhaps due to this newfound fascination that one night, Mrs. Moore went to feel the cool rural breeze and strolled too far from where she was until she had found herself inside a mosque. At that time, an Indian muslim, one named Dr. Aziz, has just ended his dusk prayers and was surprised to see Mrs. Moore entering the mosque in a white sleeping gown (Later on, Dr. Aziz would mention to Richard Fielding—a Britisgh functionary where the two women were staying---that at first she thought Mrs. Moore was a ghostly apparition.) Dr. Aziz frantically informed Mrs. Moore that she shouldn’t be in that part of the mosque since she was a women. This particular scene gives the viewer a healthy prelude to the clash of two cultures—between that of in India and the English ways---and how each one is separate and not privy at all to each other. Mrs. Moore of course apologized and this untoward meeting between the two led to a genial companionship, although it was a friendship that was deemed to be short-lived; as we were about to find out later on.

Without so much of a prelude, Dr. Aziz invited both Adela and Mrs. Moore to go sightseeing through the rustic Chandrapore countryside, more particularly to the renown Marabar caves, a huge cavern underneath a gargantuan rock formation that became world-famous not for anything much except the mysterious echoes that can be generated when one shouts into its dark spaces.

It turns out that in order to “enjoy” the strange echoes, the tourist has to make a lengthy trek far deep into its darker alleys and to this, Adela and Mrs. Moore had agreed to walk into them. The reverberating echoes within the walls of the cave and the tremendous discomfort brought about by the darkness inside it had caused so much distress to Adela that she panicked and scurried outside, bruising and injuring her in that frantic getaway from the strangeness of the echoes. The British Magistrate fiancée of Adela had eventually taken note of this and immediately ordered for the arrest of Dr. Aziz. The whole commotion in the cave has led many to believe that Aziz has attempted to rape Adela and a full-blown trial soon followed. Dr. Aziz of course cried foul and bitterly denied these purely trumped-up charges and called for the testimony of the refined and amiable Mrs. Moore whom he believes would reliably tell the truth. But to the consternation of Dr. Aziz and his counsel, the court was informed that Mrs. Moore could not give her side of what really happened that fateful day in the Marabar Caves because she was already on her way to England aboard an intercontinental ship. Dr. Aziz’s counsel smelled something fishy going on and had concluded right there and then that Mr. Heaslop, Adela’s fiancée, had deliberately sent Mrs. Moore away in order to hide the truth behind the whole fiasco and to ensure the conviction of Dr. Aziz. The judge berated Dr. Aziz’s counsel for his protestations and told him to refrain from saying agitated remarks or be thrown out of the courtroom and be barred from participating in the trial. To this, the said counsel suddenly stood up and bellowed to the judge “There is no trial! You are not trying any case! This is a farce! You and I are both slaves!” and then he took off his lawyer’s black robe and stormed out of the courtroom. Outside, he imbibed the crowd eager for the outcome of the case with anti-British sentiments by shouting repeatedly “We want Mrs. Moore!”

Before there could happen a potential uprising from the Indian populace in the city of Chandrapore over the arrest of Dr. Aziz (which many Indians there had seen as the result of British racial prejudice and discrimination against the natives), the trial ended on a turnabout testimony from Adela herself. When called to the witness stand, Adela broke down after a furious questioning and finally told the whole truth about the incident in the Marabar caves, to the effect that Dr. Aziz did not in any way tried to rape her but instead she had injured herself mostly due to her own undoing. Aside from that, in what turned out to be the most memorable scene in the movie, Adela told the court that she and Mr. Heaslop were recently engaged despite of her telling him that she don’t love him anymore. And that she just felt compelled by social norms to agree to her engagement to the British Magistrate. This had caught the crowd virtually off-guarded and even the judge was tongue-tied upon hearing this unsolicited and inconsequential confession of Adela. Mr. Heaslop of course shrunk in his seat and his head got bowed due to the embarrassment.

In the end, Dr. Aziz was acquitted and he became an instant hero in Chandrapore as a parade throughout the city was organized in his honor. The movie ended with Dr. Aziz contentedly practicing his profession in the northern Indian region of Srinagar, a silent but picturesque town whose ground are mostly covered by snow and its hills and valleys are splendid to the sight, as crystal clear lakes there shine like mirrors in purity and calmness.

The film “A Passage To India” effectively captured the emotional renderings of the E.M. Forster novel and reiterated its concern for the kind of racism that the author believed to have been apparent during the decades long British colonization of India. Actually, the film gained mixed reviews from film critics all over when it was released. Time Magazine described it “a rare triumph” while not a few noticed how it fared miserably with earlier works of David Lean. Despite of its eleven Oscar nomination in 1984, it only garnered the Best Supporting Actress trophy for Peggy Ashcroft and the Best Musical Score award for Maurice Jarre.

In my honest to goodness point-of-view, “A Passage To India” may not matched the aesthetic values of “Lawrence of Arabia” but how could one expect any director to top what “Lawrence of Arabia” had achieved considering now that it is regarded as one of the three or four greatest films ever made, right there at the top with “Citizen Kane”, “A Birth of A Nation” and “Casablanca”. To be sure, it lacks the solid characterization of early Lean films like “Bridge of The River Kwai” but it somewhat made up for this weakness by showcasing an excellent cinematography and sharp camera focuses. In “A Passage To India”, just like in “Lawrence of Arabia”, the viewer would feel immediately that no shot was wasted and that the film editor had painstakingly selected the scenes with masterful precision and that by itself a rare feat in a time where most films are well-photographed in just a few scenes but so-so in the rest. And to top that, the great production design applied in the film had effortlessly captured the subtlety and nuances of colonial age India that even though the film was shot in 1984, one feels like being brought back in time many decades into the past. If one did not know that the film was actually made in 1984, you would have thought that “A Passage To India” was made in the early decades of the last century. That was how factual and realistic this movie had appeared to be.

To me David Lean is the father of modern film from where most notable filmmakers nowadays had learned their craft. The influence of David Lean is always apparent in films by well-celebrated directors like Bernardo Bertolucci, Brian de Palma, Oliver Stone and even more commercial film helmsmen like Steven Speilberg, Michael Mann and Robert Attenborough. Sir David Lean is somewhat underrated in this manner because many directors today always credit their influences to Akira Kurosawa, as if they are ashamed to admit to idolizing a westerner like them. In truth almost all modern films---from Indiana Jones to Star Wars, from Gladiator to The Lord of the Rings, from The Godfather to Goodfellas, from Platoon to Born On The Fourth of July, from Rocky to Kramer Vs. Kramer---has all the markings of the many techniques used by David Lean in his earlier works; those rolling shots of scenic backgrounds, well-focused head shots, and the dynamic camera positioning are often replicated and duplicated in every modern film today, and these kinds of shots remind us always of the genius behind David Lean. He should be hailed as the greatest filmmaker of all time.

If you had enjoyed other David Lean’s movie like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago”, your life ain’t complete without seeing this one.


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