Sunday 4 February 2007

A Passage to India (1984) David Lean

A quick glance at the British Film Institute's list of the greatest hundred British films of all time shows the dominance of David Lean as he directed three of the top five films on the list: Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations. Not far behind is The Bridge on the River Kwai and the list also contains Doctor Zhivago and Oliver Twist. A more in depth look shows that some of his other films are also important, including his first, In Which We Serve, of which I've now seen half. David Lean is a huge part of British film history, and this was his last opportunity to show us what he could do.

We open to see Miss Adela Quested heading out of England for the first time, on the Peninsular & Oriental, now of course just known as P&O. She's bound for Bombay on a steam ship and just happens to have picked the same voyage as the Viceroy of India. Thus we're instantly greeted with pomp and pageantry and no end of grand scale, as you'd expect from the director of all those epics like Lawrence of Arabia. However as they all transfer from the boat to the train for the thousand mile journey to Chandrapore, we're also afforded glimpses into the inner characters of the people we meet, as you'd also expect from the director of less epic pictures like Brief Encounter.

David Lean makes sure that it's immediately obvious that there are two Indias: one for the native Indians and one for the colonial British. As the Viceroy's wife points out on the train, 'East is east and west is west,' with the unspoken ending to the phrase, 'and never the twain shall meet.' The Indian side is the poverty of masses sleeping in tiny spaces and the chaos of the marketplaces, while the British side is the artificial civility of planned streets, postboxes and cucumber sandwiches. Even the signposts highlight the difference. Indian ones list Indian names, yet the English ones only mention well known London names transferred overseas.

When Adela asks her friend, and almost fiance, Ronny, the local magistrate about the local hill caves, which are soon to become so crucial to the plot, it's obvious that he's never been there. His life revolves about the few truly British institutions there are in Chandrapore: his work at the court, his house and, above all, the club. The rest of it may as well be on the other side of the globe, especially as we soon discover that Indians are not even allowed into the club, making it almost foreign soil. It's very similar to the insanity of the American civil rights situation in the 1960s, only nearly half a century earlier and in the suppressed race's own country. Adela soon realises that while trying to see 'the real India', she's hardly met a real Indian.

However, her companion Mrs Moore, who is Ronny's mother, has. Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who it seems won every award in the book, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award, for her performance, doesn't buy into the 'never the twain shall meet' concept either. The first time we see her on her own she visits a mosque at night, aware of and abiding by the local customs and is more than respectful of the doctor who is also visiting, played by Victor Banerjee. She has an open and tolerant mind far too early for its time. She sees the Indians as people, pure and simple, and is fascinated by their culture.

The doctor she meets, Dr Aziz, is the personification of the 'never the twain shall meet', an educated Indian who speaks English but who is a second class citizen in his own country. For most of the film he is almost always hesitant, whether among his English acquaintances who fail to understand the Indians or among his fellow Indians who fail to understand the English. Banerjee is superb, as are Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft in the most obvious two roles. There's even Alec Guinness as an acceptable orthodox Sikh, but his voice is just too hard to hide to make it a great role for him. I know many of these actors, including Nigel Havers as Ronny, James Fox as the local professor, Richard Wilson as the Viceroy and others like Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey and Clive Swift, many from English television.

A Passge to India is a peach of a film, that doesn't feel like it's nearly three hours long, looks wonderful and has plenty of depth into a country divided by design. There's also an admirable restraint, that avoids any of this becoming racist, even while it's depicting a racist society. Just because the British Raj was racist against the Indians doesn't mean that every white man living in India followed suit, and after the crucial turn of affairs halfway through the film that shakes up everything, we see racism on the Indian side, however justified they may have felt about it. Dr Aziz once more is the key character, changing his views as life changes him. Everything about Banerjee's performance is spot on and for me, I'll remember his work here as much as that of Peggy Ashcroft.

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