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A Passage to India (1984)


James Ivory is probably still crying himself to sleep every night because he didn’t get to direct the adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. It’s got his name written all over it. But David Lean got to it first.

That alone is a shock: Lean hadn’t made a film in 14 years when he came across India. It was the last film he ever made.

You needn’t watch much to realize it’s stuffed full of Lean’s big movie trademarks. Lush scenery, big-name stars (Alec Guinness as an Indian stoic!), local flavor, and of course a cast of thousands. Studios wouldn’t dream of trying to shoot some of India‘s biggest set pieces today. It’d all be CGI.

And that’s what makes the smallness of India‘s story so surprising. Though it runs nearly three hours long, it’s a relatively simple story of a rather plain 1920s English woman, Miss Quested (Judy Davis), who travels to India to be see her fiancee. She is befriended by a native Indian, Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), and though it’s a little taboo, he agrees to take Miss Quested and her would-be mother-in-law (Peggy Ashcroft) on a tour of the mysterious Marabar caves. But Miss Quested is soon seen rushing down the hill, through a field of cacti, to escape the situation. When she emerges she accuses Aziz of attempted rape. A trial ensues.

We know that Miss Quested is prone to exaggeration and even hallucination — a scene where she is nearly attacked by monkeys on her bicycle is perhaps the most blatant example in the film — so it’s no surprise when the case falls apart. And yet we feel kind of ripped off: Hours of film all lead up to this?

Lean isn’t on his A-game here, but the film isn’t bad. Both James Fox (as Aziz’s stalwart, great white hope) and Banerjee are excellent in the film. Ashcroft won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, though she doesn’t do much in the film but ‘feel faint’ and worry. A Passage to India also offers some important, though pretty heavy-handed, messages about tolerance and justice all filtered through the sun-drenched lens of cinematographer Ernest Day.

Even by 1984, I doubt many would find the unfairness of the British colonial system to be a surprise, but if any one film is capable of laying it all bare for the world to see, well, this is probably it.

The new DVD includes a second disc loaded with making-of featurettes, interviews, and memories. Producer Richard Goodwin also offers a commentary track on the feature.