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Circa 1920, during the Indian British rule, Dr. Aziz H. Ahmed was born and brought up in India. He is proficient in English, and wears Western style clothing. He meets an old lady, Mrs. Moore, at a mosque, who asks him to accompany her and her companion, Adela Quested, for sight-seeing around some caves. Thereafter the organized life of Aziz is turned upside down when Adela accuses him of molesting her in a cave. Aziz is arrested and brought before the courts, where he learns that the entire British administration is against him, and would like to see him found guilty and punished severely, to teach all native Indians what it means to molest a British citizen. Aziz is all set to witness the "fairness" of the British system, whose unofficial motto is "guilty until proved innocent." Written by
When Adela, Mrs. Moore, and Dr. Aziz are riding the elephant, the first close-up shot of Adela and Dr. Aziz shows certain landmarks on the rock in the background. The next shot is a long shot of the elephant's feet as it walks. The third shot is another close-up of Adela and Dr. Aziz passing the same landmarks at the same starting point. See more »
If the 1970s saw the birth of modern cinema of blockbusters and mixed-up genres, the 1980s saw the death of what went before. It was during that decade that those actors and filmmakers from the classic era who were still around made their final bows. A Passage to India is the last picture directed by David Lean, one of the most influential and respected directors of his age, and one who, having his most universal successes in the late 50s and early 60s, in many ways bridges the gap between the two generations.
A Passage to India is adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster, a work ahead of its time when published in 1924. It condemns the prejudice and injustice of the British administration in India, but it rejects a confrontational attitude, instead looking progressively at Anglo-Indian relations. The story's only real flaw is that, whatever it does in the cause of racial harmony, it undoes for perceptions of women, trotting out as it does the old cliché of women falsely and hysterically accusing men of rape. And yet Forster was an intelligent and even-handed enough writer that he at least attempts to explain and sympathise with Miss Quested's position, something which the motion pictures echoes, actually beginning and ending the film with her story, and showing the courtroom testimonial from her perspective. Released a couple of years after the Oscar-winning Gandhi, A Passage to India could be seen as a companion piece, or at least part of a similar trend in British cinema of making up for the decades of gung-ho pictures about the empire. However, while the earlier picture is factually objective, A Passage to India is a work of pure drama; deep, spiritual and humanistic.
For A Passage to India director David Lean also acted as editor, the first time he had done so in forty years. The cutting is particularly tight and in tune with the imagery, and you can see many fine examples of the "surprise" editing that characterises Lean pictures. So we get a sudden cut from the dullness and closeness of the English travel office, to the bright open space and sudden burst of noise at the Indian port. Many scenes begin, not with an establishing shot, but an attention-grabbing close-up, such as the Union Jack on the car bonnet that kicks off the scene where Victor Banerjee and Art Malik get run off the road. Lean didn't invent such impactful editing, but he helped to make a popular style of it, and you can see its influence in many contemporary pictures, including the one that beat A Passage to India at the Oscars, Amadeus. Lean is constantly throwing ideas at us as fast as we can absorb them, a reaction shot of some Indian women amid the pomp at the quay, Nigel Havers's smug smile after coldly passing sentence on an Indian. His imagery of evocative landscapes and shimmering moonlight as well as the recurring "Mrs Moore" chant bring out the mystical tone of the novel. A Passage to India demonstrates, at the end of Lean's career, his intelligent craftsmanship and his continued relevance to modern cinema.
And yet, elsewhere this comes across as a somewhat out-of-time production. The jolly, jaunty Maurice Jarre score is woefully inappropriate, although bizarrely enough it won an Oscar. Jarre referenced Arabic music for Lawrence of Arabia and Russian music for Doctor Zhivago; why could he not reference Indian themes for this picture which so much requires the indigenous touch? Another mistake is the casting of Alec Guinness as an Indian character. Not that ethnic authenticity is an absolute necessity, but this Godbole is a somewhat ridiculous figure, and I'm reminded that one of Guinness's earliest roles for Lean was as a comedy big-nosed Jew in Oliver Twist. Lean's formal style was modern and flexible, but in other areas his thinking was from another era.
On the whole however, this is an incredibly well-made work of cinema. Most of the cast perform well, the standouts being Victor Banerjee and Peggy Ashcroft. Their scene together in the mosque (a pivotal moment in the novel) is given the correct level of warmth and dignity that it requires. There are also memorable turns from two of the finest Indian character actors, Saeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth, as well as nice appearances from British sitcom actors Richard Wilson (aka Victor Meldrew) and Clive Swift (aka Richard Bucket) as trumped-up Englishmen. The ending has a triumphal sense of poignancy, and the large scope of the picture is so delicately tempered with intimacy. It's a fitting coda to Lean's career, drawing together the epics for which he won awards and the emotionally-charged dramas with which he began.
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