A passage to India.
As there, so here; as thenM so now. There's something fishy about the epic feast David Lean serves up in A Passage to India, a classically conceived, beautifully constructed and exquisitely executed movie which pretends to be what it is not. It looks like an epic. We know this because it lasts for two hours and 40 minutes and contains several extremely long shots of antique trains chugging across sunset horizons. Its romantic musical score, which sometimes evokes "Lara's Theme" in Lean's bona fide epic Dr. Zhivago, is played by a thousand heavenly strings. It has faceless brown multitudes, colorful colonial festivities and an elephant. But if Lean came to India to find an epic subject, he was misinformed.
E.M. Forster's celebrated novel, published in 1924, is intimate despite its exotic locale; interior despite scenes of furious activity; intensive despite the breadth of the country it concerns and the societies if covers. Set against a historical backdrop with political props, it is about neither history nor politics, at least in the ordinary epic sense. It is a novel of crosscultural manners, psychological struggle and philosophical speculation. Forster's major characters are subtly conceived and their behavior is always ambiguous; ditto for their relationships. The period of the plot is brief: no sweep of centuries buries the business in timeless sands. If Leans were not overwhelmed by the size of the subcontinent where he filmed his movie, he might have looked to his own Brief Encounter rather than to Lawrence of Arabia for an appropriate model.
In forster's story, the encounter in question takes place between Adela Quested and her passion, between her Anglo-Saxon temperament evident on the surface and a savage sexuality burning down below. Yes, that old post-Victorian chestnut falls again from the thrusting tree of English lit: middle-class British virgin (de facto or de jure) gets turned on in the Third World by native heat, art and legend, or just plain dirty talk. It must have been quite a sensitive subject in the 1920s, because the Awakening drove writers to extremes of sexual symbol and metaphor. Few modern novels are more out of control than D.H. Lawrence's hilarious The Plumed Serpent, in which the unfulfilled Kate Leslie gets "awakened," and much more, by a Mexican layabout who could be the god Quetzalcoatl.
Now we have Lawrence of India. Forster's Miss Quested (Judy Davis), a spiritual sister of Kate Leslie, is on her way to India to see about the possibility, or at least the logic, of marrying Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), a zircon in the crown of the British raj, currently serving as a civil magistrate in the (fictional) provincial capital of Chandrapore. Ronny's mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), accompanies Miss Quested on the journey, which is heavy with portent. At dockside in Bombay we have seen already that British rule in India is doomed by its own pomposity, that imperial comfort is insupportable in the face of native squalor, and that something narsty is going to happen to Miss Quested if she doesn't mind her manners.
Both English ladies are liberal and they bare easily offended by the inequality between rulers and ruled. They scorn the pomp and the polo and yearn to experience "the real India." For Mrs. Moore, a premature post-Christian, that has to do with the alternative spiritual life style expressed by Professor Godole (Alec Guinness), the local Hindu sadhu. For Miss Quested it is the hungry I of the sweaty, excitable Moslem physician Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee). Through the efforts of the integrationist schoolmaster Fielding (James Fox), another liberal Briton, Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested take tea with the two Inians, and before long most of this crowd is traipsing out to the Marabar Hills (hence, the epic elephant), on a psychosexual, spiritual pilgrimage to mysterious caves and the climax of the story. Boum goes the echo from the depths. Zing go the strings of their hearts. Atop the dusty domes Mrs. Moore loses God, Miss Quested encounters her id, and Dr. Aziz discovers that British liberalism is a mixed blessing at best.
Write like romance. Shoot like epic. Is not! Forster's India was antiroma tic, impaired, off. Chandrapore was "scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish [the Ganges] deposits so freely." The Marabar caves were boring, empty, unholy and undecorated. Miss Quested was unattractive and neurotic; Mrs. Moore was not the saint others thought her; Aziz was tiresome and abrasive. Lean knew all that--his movie is serious, intelligent and deliberate--and he apparently wanted to be faithful to Forster's conception, but the form the director chose is always at odds with the material at hand. As a result, he had to cut and paste to restore the romance, remove the impairments, keep it up instead of off. Lean clears up the mystery of the cave, and thus destroys the essential ambiguity of the novel. He adds a scene in which Miss Quested comes upon a trove of Hindu porn on ancient temple ruins, thus making literal and banal what was once subtle and suggestive. He leaves out the crucial motivation for Mrs. Moore's unexpected flight from India before the conflicts are resolved. He invents a final reconciliation between Fielding and Aziz that creates a false sense of brotherhood between the British and the Indians. And he trivializes the entire colonial struggle with blimpish images of the raj and comedy-store impersonations of the natives. Guinness's Professor Godbole, in particular, is a scandalous representation. It's easy enough to ridicule a guru; the trick is to get behind the Peter Sellers routine, and Guinness manages that for just one instant.
In a week or so, A Passage to India will be nominated for an Acadmey Award, and by April, David Lean should be able to pick up his third Oscar as Best Director. He deserves a prize. For all its faults of literary license and cultural wrongheadedness, this is a striking movie-movie, perhaps the last one of the classic period that we will see. And besides, India is hot. Gandhi laid the groundwork. The Jewel in the Crown became the middlebrow PBS Dynasty. Then the various assassinations, riots and industrial disasters of the past year put the spotlight on the vast nation. And as they say on Entertainment Tonight, there's no such thing as bad publicity.