• U.S.

A Superb Passage to India

14 minute read
Richard Schickel

Bombay, some time in the 1920s. Military band music. Massed cavalry. Mobs of the curious, somehow menacing in their vastness. The Viceroy and his lady are returning from England to India. As they pass through a great ceremonial arch, it fills the screen, dwarfing them and casting them, as symbols of an empire’s transitory pomp, into the subcontinent’s tuneless perspective.

Night. A train bearing more modest English visitors, Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore, chuffs and hoots across the plains. They are on their way to visit the latter’s son in Chandrapore, where he serves the British raj as city magistrate. Adela, plain but secretly a spirited young woman, contemplates marrying him. But in her berth she dreams vaguely of adventure, of discovering what she likes to call “the real India.” Outside, the real India broods enigmatically, and we see the train from another of the subcontinent’s perspectives, as a tiny toy almost lost at its feet. In the shadowy foreground of these shots loom India’s temples and palaces, symbols of its several cultures and religions, of a history—a maddeningly complex reality—impenetrable to the passing stranger.

Morning, some weeks later. Miss Quested has found her adventure, her brief and, as it will happen, terrifying glimpse of Indian reality. A young Muslim physician, Dr. Aziz, has mounted an excursion to the Marabar Caves, in the hills beyond Chandrapore, for the two English ladies. To transport them in style he has laid on a huge retinue of servants and an elephant. “An old, old animal, an ancient, ancient animal, plodding on almost back into the past,” is how the man who made the film describes the creature. But even this great beast and the train of servants stretching out behind it are reduced to insignificance by the featureless rocks that tower above them along the way.

These are awesome images, astonishing images. But in the superb film that David Lean has made from E.M. Forster’s sublime novel A Passage to India, their function far transcends the purely pictorial. In Lean’s cinema there is no such thing as an idle shot, something that survives to the final cut merely because it is striking in its beauty or novel in its impact. Particularly in the Lean films that people conveniently but mistakenly identify as “epics” or “spectacles”—movies like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago—the largest weight of his meaning is carried not by dialogue but by images, and by his manner of juxtaposing them in the editing.

This is perhaps truer than ever in Passage. Like Forster, Lean uses India not just as a colorful and exotic setting but as a decisive force in shaping the story he is telling, almost as a character. And as a resonant symbol: of the unknowable and chaotic universe everyone inhabits; of the unknowable and chaotic inner life that inhabits everyone. Those images in which man’s pretensions to power, to mastery over self and fate, are trivialized, swallowed up in the vastness of the Indian earth and sky, are careful, conscious efforts to express the film’s theme visually without stating it flatly, in words.

This is a daring strategy, especially since Lean is not a man who likes to explain what he is doing, much less call attention to his command of technique or to his personality or creative philosophy. He is assuredly an auteur, but not one who uses that status to gain entrée to the talk shows and the rest of celebrity’s dubious glories. Nevertheless, Passage has been doing excellent business in the three cities where it has opened in the past two weeks—New York, Los Angeles and Toronto—and it is already being recognized as a major achievement. The New York Film Critics Circle last week named Passage the best movie and Lean the best director of the year. This bodes well not only for commercial success as the film begins to open more widely, but also for Oscar nominations in February.

So Lean’s risky enterprise appears likely to pay off handsomely. But make no mistake; it was probably the most audacious chance yet taken by this 76-year-old director, whose movie career and stylistic roots go back to the days of silent film, which coincide roughly with the period in which Forster’s novel was finished.

As with all movies, the gamble was partly economic, but not primarily so. In fact, at a time when the merely average movie, nowhere near as long (2 hr. 43 min.), complex or striking to look at, costs about $11 million, and in a year when competing pictures like Dune and The Cotton Club ran up tabs in the $50 million range, Passage, at around $16 million, seems like a bargain. Its budget is a tribute to an ascetic director’s waste-not-want-not ability to visualize precisely what he wants on paper, then put it on film efficiently and economically.

No, the real risk was one of the spirit rather than the purse. For Lean had not made a movie since 1970, when he completed the critically and financially disappointing Ryan’s Daughter. He passed some of the ensuing years in bitterness, wounded by reviewers who so often tend to listen to movies more intently than they look at them, thus missing much of his special grace and subtlety. Some of his time was wasted on a two-part retelling of the saga of Captain Bligh and the Bounty, which its producer either could not or would not finance in its full power and glory. Since his current producers, John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin, had almost as much trouble rounding up the money for Passage, Lean’s cold contempt for movie magnates might even exceed his ire at critics.

For a man like him, austere and passionate, to attempt a comeback after these misadventures, and at his age, was an act of extraordinary creative nerve. To do so with an adaptation of a book that, however beguiling its surfaces, has been a conundrum for readers ever since its publication 60 years ago, was flirting dangerously with calamity. After all, a novel that speaks in a quiet adult voice, and that proceeds from delicate ironies to the contemplation of metaphysical mysteries, is not your customary movie property. That Lean has brought this essentially schizoid work to the screen with such sureness, elegance and hypnotic force is akin to a miracle.

The problem the novel presents to an adapter lies in a “trick” (Forster’s own word) of design, a conscious separation of the meaning of the tale from its main narrative line. That narrative, richly peopled with types Forster encountered on two long trips to India, is quite straightforward. Psychologically, the point on which it is poised is the suppressed emotional tipsiness of Adela Quested. As played in the movie by Australian Actress Judy Davis, Adela is dull at first glance but with a wild surmise glowing in her eyes, her gestures half formed, alternately acknowledging and denying the curious new telegraphy that India is dot-dashing through her ganglia. She will have her adventure! She will touch, as the Anglo-Indians keep refusing to, Indian reality! And she will do so despite the warnings of her fiancé(Nigel Havers, who does the impossible by making priggishness sympathetic).

Adela gains her opportunity through another Englishman, Mr. Fielding, principal of the local school, who is gracefully played by James Fox to represent the better side of Englishness: liberal and reasonable, humane and humorous. Fielding introduces Adela to her balancing (and ultimately unbalancing) Indian opposite, Dr. Aziz. In Victor Banerjee’s electrifying performance, Aziz is eager to please and quick to anger, a bundle of nerves ricocheting wildly through the film. He is just naive and self-absorbed enough not to perceive Adela’s vulnerable state. He fails to understand that the Marabar Caves are more than a tourist attraction to be undertaken lightly, that they have an almost palpably oppressive symbolic weight.

The caves. What actually happens when Aziz and Adela separate from the rest of their party and go off alone to explore the remotest of them? This is the question that everyone, from humble English-lit student to magisterial critic, has been pondering since Forster published in 1924. All we know is that on the trek to them the conversation between man and woman drifts uncomfortably toward matters of the heart, that they enter different caves, that Adela becomes frightened and disoriented as the result of an echo she hears, and that suddenly she is stumbling hysterically back down the hill, giving the distinct impression that she has been assaulted. What we will never know is whether Aziz followed her into her cave and made sexual advances to her or whether the whole thing was a hallucination. The movie, following Forster, seems to imply Aziz’s innocence. But even after a trial, which almost brings the English and the Indians into violent confrontation, even after Adela recants her accusation, no one can be certain.

That is because though the point may seem crucial to the narrative, it is actually insignificant thematically. What is important is, of all things, the echo. ” ‘Boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum,’ or ‘ou-boum’—utterly dull,” is the way Forster rather unhelpfully describes it.

Yet symbolically it meant everything to him. For in his view the universe was a hopeless “muddle,” and India, in its vastness and variety, was the dangerous and seductive symbol of that universe. Finally, the echo, with its capacity to undermine one’s hold on reason, to reduce everything, the good and the bad, to the same level of meaninglessness, symbolized India. The echo, in the novel, speaks thus: ” ‘Pathos, piety, courage—they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.’ If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same—’ou-boum.’ ”

Only two characters understand the dreadful disorienting power made manifest by the echo, and their answer to it is withdrawal from the world. One is a Hindu sage, Professor Godbole, a lively cricket of a man, hopping to some music only the brilliant Alec Guinness can hear. As Fielding busies himself with Aziz’s defense, Godbole’s comment is merely “You can do what you like, but the outcome will be the same.” The other is Mrs. Moore, Adela’s traveling companion, almost comically regal at some moments, uncannily vulnerable in others, but always touched by mystery as Peggy Ashcroft delicately plays her. Mrs. Moore enters only one cave, then reels out of it, having confronted her own mortality. Later, when people try to draw her back into the muddle to testify at Aziz’s trial, she escapes by booking passage home: “Love in a church, love in a cave, as if there is the least difference, and I held up from my business over such trifles. Nothing I say or do will make the slightest difference.”

Mrs. Moore and Godbole are the last of the film’s matched pairs, and narratively the least important of them. But it is in their almost haughty indifference to the mundane and reasonable that the story’s meaning is vested. And it is in them that Lean’s art reaches its subtlest heights. They scarcely exchange a word, but they silently signal to each other from cut to cut, across vales of karma, achieving a communion that none of the other characters, for all their talk, ever do. In a way, they could be said to resonate to each other, echo each other.

Echoes, echoes. The critic Lionel Trilling described the novel as “a book which is contrived of echoes.” The movie, if it were to achieve the kind of spiritual, as opposed to literal, faithfulness to its source that Lean aspired to, had to be a thing of echoes too—but visual, not auditory, echoes. Image reverberates to image endlessly in this film. The early shots of the great arch and the little train lost in the huge landscape propose the film’s overarching theme—India as mysterious and maddening cavern—and then Lean starts the echoes rolling through it. When Mrs. Moore meets Aziz for the first time, the moon is reflected cool and tiny in a shimmering pool. It does not appear again until she has heard the fateful voice of the caves. Then, suddenly, it looms large over the shoulder of a forbidding monolith, itself reminiscent of a moonscape.

When Adela begins to awaken to her own sexuality, it is at a temple covered with erotic statuary and guarded by a large troop of anarchically aggressive monkeys. Later, going to testify at Aziz’s trial, she must drive through a crowd raging at her, and a man in a monkey costume leaps on her car, pressing his face menacingly against the window. Is it this echo that impels her to testify that she was the victim of a hallucination and thus free Aziz from his anguish? The movie is silent on the point, allowing us to make what we will of the image.

Then there is the matter of the bouquet. Very early in the film Adela is given one by her fiancé as he welcomes her to Chandrapore. Very late in the film, the throbbing engines of a ship bearing Mrs. Moore homeward take on the tone and pitch of the cave’s echo, and she dies. When she is buried at sea, an anonymous passenger throws a bouquet like Adela’s into the water as the body slides under the waves. Echoes, echoes.

Paradoxically, the care with which Lean lets such intricately wrought correspondences speak for themselves creates a danger that the partially attentive may again mistake him for what he is not: an empty pictorialist. Or, because his characters wear costumes and move against an authentic historical background, in classically composed scenes that do not obviously assert his personality or linger over his cleverness, some people may persist in seeing him as an old-fashioned moviemaker.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of his films, intimate or expansive in scale, return obsessively to the same theme: a lone individual voyages out from familiar surroundings into exotic ones. These characters are tested (as Lean has liked to test himself on the far-flung locations of his wandering life), forced to examine their assumptions about themselves, the world, their places in it. All of them must affirm their humanity against the indifference—the muddle—of whatever corner of the unhelpful universe they find themselves. All discover, sooner or later, happily or unhappily, that their original certainties require radical revision.

This, finally, is what the echoes in A Passage to India are whispering and thundering. In his 82nd year, Forster was still insisting on that point. No, he said, responding testily to reviews of a theatrical adaptation of his book, it was not merely about the incompatibility of East and West. It was about “the difficulty of living in the universe.” In other words, it was, among other things, a David Lean movie waiting to be made. And now we have it, sober and witty, subtle yet eminently approachable. It is a movie both true to its source and true to the highest imperatives of its own medium. Above all, it is true to our sense of the world as it echoes in the common consciousness of our times.

—By Richard Schickel

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com