From the very first frame – the opening credits in fact – A Passage to India commands our complete attention. The names in classic lettering are superimposed on Indian art of a predominately a golden colour; thus the stage is set for an exotic tale of epic proportions. What is most intriguing about the credits though is the introduction of Maurice Jarre’s main theme which runs throughout the film. Sure it possesses the quintessential ‘soaring strings’ of many an epic, and yet, the basic melody is positively…jaunty. Buoyant and terribly reminiscent of the old 20s dance bands, the music is best described as (and do forgive the dreadful pun) jarring. Almost at once, our imagination has been seized.
Here, before we have even met a single character, several key ideas have been established. Firstly, that things are never as they seem in this tale; in other words, our characters may look content, but all are hiding how they really feel. Secondly, we realise that the British themselves are ill at ease in their surroundings, just as the score seems somewhat unfitting of a grand adventure. They are comfortable with neither the India they have claimed, nor the people whom they concurrently conquered.
A Passage to India centres on one such Brit: Miss Adela Quested, who sails from England to see her fiancé – a snooty, rather tiresome fellow by the name of Ronny Heaslop. Accompanying Quested is Heaslop’s mother, the kindly Mrs Moore. Upon their arrival, the two women are surprised to find the Anglicised world in which they find themselves, as well as the disdain with which the locals are regarded. Longing for a glimpse of the ‘real India’, Adela and Mrs Moore embark on a journey to the remote Marabar Caves escorted by a new friend: the Indian physician Dr Aziz Ahmed. From this point onwards, the charmed, rather idyllic existence that Lean at first paints begins to unravel; just as India begins to reveal herself, so too does the true character of Adela come to light.
One of the most memorable scenes of the film comes not from Forster, but from the pen of Lean. For the first time in the movie, Miss Quested travels alone, riding on her bicycle through a deserted countryside. Particular attention is drawn to a road sign of apparently little significance. As Adela cycles down an overgrown path, we linger a moment on the road sign once more – at this angle, it is unmistakable as a cross. The message is clear: Quested is leaving behind her haven of Western mores and Christianity. Now, she ventures alone.
Adela doesn’t quite realise it at first, but the path eventually takes her to a tantric shrine, long-abandoned and falling to ruin. We cut between the decaying erotic sculptures and the face of Adela as she reacts to each of them – interchanging between the two with an increasing frequency, resulting in a kind of accelerated montage. This technique has the uncanny ability of not only racking up the tension, but also subtly welding the two entities together.
The statues, as well as the shrine itself, unlock in Adela a lifetime of sexual repression. Adela seems to fall into a kind of daze, only to be interrupted suddenly by the appearance of ferocious monkeys, perhaps a reminder of the animalistic desires that is within all of us. They crouch ominously, seemingly preparing to attack Adela. Overwhelmed by both her internal emotions and a whole host of external forces, Adela flees back into the arms of Heaslop. Although she does not love him, she fears what India has awakened in herself, and finds in him the comfort of that which is fundamentally familiar.
Like the novel, the focal point of the film is the scene in the Marabar Caves. Unlike the novel however, the movie cannot be so ostensibly vague about whether or not Adela is assaulted due to the vey nature of the medium. We are therefore left with a kind of impartial reality of what actually happened. Standing in the darkness of the cave, Adela sees the figure of Aziz, a man who she has become increasingly drawn to but whom she knows she can never have. Dr Aziz calls for her, but by the time his voice reaches her, it becomes a deep, haunting rumble of indiscernible noise. The doctor is arguably stood in such a way that recalls the monkeys about to pounce. Once more, and this time more seriously than the last, Miss Quested is utterly overcome, hallucinating a scene of attempted rape.
A trial ensues. It is this very event that seems to, once and for all, completely divide the British and the Indians. Aziz’s only English friend, Mr Richard Fielding, seems to turn his back on him. Even though Fielding promises to be but a moment, there is such a look of haunting loss in Aziz’s eyes when Fielding leaves that we understand that this is the end. The two men were never meant to be friends – arguably they never truly were.
Aziz’s name is ultimately cleared when Adela comes to her senses (signified beautifully by the rain washing away the grime on a window). Nevertheless, we never really get the resolution we crave. Although they ultimately make peace with what has happened, Aziz dons traditional Indian attire for perhaps the first time in the film, signifying his departure from the British and the abandonment of his wish for understanding and harmony between the two cultures. Adela returns home to England, and we watch as she continues the sheltered and disappointing life she had once sought to escape from.This post is part of the 1984-a-thon hosted by Forgotten Films. For more reviews of movies released during this fantastic year, click here.