Classic Film Talk: ‘A Passage to India’ (1984)

Today we reminisce about

A Passage to India (1984)

Directed by David Lean

Starring: Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Victor Banerjee


From left to right: Adele, Aziz, Richard Fielding, Mrs. Moore


Englishwoman Adele Quested (Davis) is travelling to India so that she can be reunited with her fiancé, Ronny Heaslop (Havers), a magisterial judge who has made his home in the foreign land. She is taking her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Ashcroft) along for the voyage because she has not seen her son since he took up residency there a few years before. Not ever having left England before, Adele is excited to travel, meet new people, and see new places, although she is unsure whether she wants to marry Ronny after so much time apart. Once arrived by boat in India, the women take a train and are fascinated by their surroundings, blind to the social codes that the British have instilled for themselves among the Indians/natives. They are interested in meeting the locals and sightseeing, growing bored with events organised by the English. By chance, Mrs. Moore becomes acquainted with Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Banerjee) one evening in a Mosque and they take a platonic liking to one another, leading her to invite him to the home of British school deputy Richard Fielding (Fox) so that they can organise an expedition to the Marabar Caves. At Fielding’s home, they are also introduced to Professor Godbole (Guinness), an eccentric Hindu professor. Ronny is scandalised by his mother and Adele’s relaxed attitude towards the Indians but permits them to go on this one trip.

Aziz manages to organise a large expedition and everyone departs early in the morning except for Fielding and Godbole who narrowly miss the train. When they arrive, they set-up camp and explore the caves, finding that there is an unnaturally large echo. Upon hearing it, Mrs. Moore becomes claustrophobic and declines to continue on herself though she encourages Adele and Aziz to go on alone with the guide. As the party of the three travels up the mountainside, Adele has an epiphany and questions her love for Ronny. She asks Aziz some questions about his love life and for a brief moment, there is a spark between them. When they reach the upper caves, Aziz goes off for a smoke while Adele goes inside one of the openings. A throbbing echo overtakes her and moments later, she flees down the side of the mountain and into thorny bush, bleeding profusely from several parts of her body. After managing to get help from another Englishwoman, she is taken back to their home and treated. When Aziz and the others return from the trip, Aziz is arrested with charges of attempted rape. He is put on trial, much to the delight of the English who use the accusations against him to further their superiority and badly label the Indians.

Will Aziz be condemned or exonerated? What really happened in the cave? After all of this, does Adele have a future in India?



It had been 14 years since David Lean had directed a film after the overall disastrous critical reception and appraisal of Ryan’s Daughter. He had attempted to undertake several projects during his absence from directing but nothing seemed to work out for him. The only credit he has to his name during that time is a documentary, Lost and Found: The Story of Cook’s Anchor, which he was hoping would convince Warner Bros. to let him make an updated version of Mutiny on the Bounty. After Warner Bros. financially backed out of the project, Lean was eventually aided by Dino de Laurentiis (a friend and colleague of Carlo Ponti who had produced Doctor Zhivago) but again the project fell through after casting had commenced. The project would later be made into a film called The Bounty starring Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson with de Laurentiis attached to the credits as well as Lean’s foremost screenplay partner Robert Bolt though Lean himself was not acknowledged. It is likely that Lean wondered if he would ever make a feature again until his interest in turning the novella A Passage to India into a film was reignited.

The film A Passage to India was directly adapted from a theatre screenplay written by Santha Rama Rau, who had gotten direct permission from author E.M. Forster. Forster was very protective of his work and almost always refused to allow it to be adapted, so the fact that Rau was able to turn his work into a successful play is quite an exceptional feat. After Forster’s passing, the rights for his works were given to King’s College in Cambridge, England, which denied numerous requests by well-known and respected film directors and producers. Eventually the board of fellows made it so that the rights to turn Forster’s works into films were possible, therefore making it so that Lean could eventually make the film. This was only half the battle because Lean still had to secure financing for the film which was not easy to do. MGM believed that the film’s subject matter was old-fashioned and that audiences would not be interested in such a picture. Somehow, Lean convinced studio executives otherwise and was able to start thinking about casting and shooting locales, among other things.

The main and supporting cast is made-up of mostly established British actors as well as some Indian actors that were well-known in their home country. Peggy Ashcroft was primarily a theatre thespian, having done relatively few films in her career. Victor Banerjee had done a few films in India but was quite new on the scene, which made Lean hesitate before casting him. Judy Davis, who is a native Australian, had a good understanding of her character and of the script so Lean cast her quite quickly. They did not get along at all during filming with Davis questioning Lean’s skills and age. Alec Guinness, Lean’s usual muse, was back after having rejected the role of Father Hugh Collins in Ryan’s Daughter, which was played by Trevor Howard. Things were fine in the beginning but Lean and Guinness started quarrelling during production and ended up not speaking to each other by the end of the film. Guinness claimed that Lean mistreated him, an accusation that echoed a similar one made by John Wayne towards director John Ford. Both men had volatile relationships with both directors, who were demanding and difficult in their own rights, but with whom they created some of their best work. The rest of the cast is rounded out some fine British actors and two notable Indian actors, Saeed Jaffray and Roshan Seth, both of whom had supporting roles in Gandhi.

Peggy Ashcroft won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mrs. Moore


Comparisons with Gandhi (1982)

Another epic set in India during the British Raj was Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi. Released two years before A Passage to India, the film was extremely political in nature and was praised for its accurate portrayals of historical events and figures. It was a smash hit worldwide and took home eight Academy Awards. David Lean had long expressed interest in making a film about Mahatma Gandhi’s life but destiny pulled him in other directions. Though it is unknown if Lean held any personal animosity towards Attenborough, he made it clear that he had no intention of seeing the film in its entirety and one would assume that it was not due to a lack of interest. Having seen both films, I believe that A Passage to India is a more fitting type of film for Lean’s style because he was never overly political in his previous ventures. Rather Lean loved celebrating different cultures and customs, incorporating the use of landscapes to capture magic.

In terms of colour contrast, A Passage to India uses many deep and warm tones to make for a vibrant and welcoming environment, particularly in the places frequented by the British because they had the financial means to make an oasis in the middle of barren land. However, even the more destitute commoners were surrounded by lots of colour such as when Adele and Mrs. Moore go through the market. Just seeing the various colourful varieties of spices was most impressive. Contrary to that, the tones are more muted when Aziz’s home is used as the setting. He lives in a very modest dwelling that has faded and chipped paint inside and out and equipped with worn down furniture. These washed out tones are very prominent in Gandhi, highlighting the poor geographical areas and feeble living conditions of Gandhi and the people he wants to help. Splashes of colour are present in some clothing but most things are kept very simple aside from scenes inside British administrative buildings which are tidy and ornate.

The most debated notion about A Passage to India is that it portrayed the British in a positive light and that the film was, essentially, pro-British. This would be in stark opposition to Gandhi which focused on the atrocities committed by the British and highlighted the fight for Indian freedom from British rule. Although A Passage to India does put the British in a negative light, it does so according to the social caste system they created which leads to discrimination and does not focus on violence. Lean’s film is certainly a love letter to India and its people in a way and his not focusing on politics does not mean that he dismissed the past or that he was promoting the British. I find the suggestion of using this film to promote British superiority rather far-fetched. For some reason, Lean had to deal with some other issues that arose in an accusatory fashion. Some critics complained that Alec Guinness’s casting as a Hindu was outrageous and that his costume and make-up job made him resemble Peter Seller’s character from The Party. Yet no one complained when British actor Ben Kingsley was cast to play Mahatma Gandhi, needing physical alterations and make-up to physically fit the role. Ironically enough, Attenborough met with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru one year before his death and Nehru suggested that Alec Guinness play Gandhi.

Alec Guinness as Professor Narayan Godbole

Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi in ‘The Party’ (1968)

Ben Kingsley as Mahatma K. Gandhi in ‘Gandhi’ (1982)


Lean’s Self-Homage to His Past Work

Within the first eight minutes of the film, you see two shots of a travelling train that take you back to two of Lean’s greatest epics: The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. There is no mistaking that both shots were set up on purpose and anyone who has seen the films will recognise them immediately. I personally smiled when I saw the footage because I was pleased that Lean was putting in Easter eggs for those who would most appreciate them. Additionally, there is man pulling a rope in the courtroom in order to manually fan a giant cloth that is there to fan the judge. Lean focused on an identical character in The Bridge on the River Kwai, a man who would endlessly fan Colonel Saito’s quarters. Adding this was a marvellous touch.

More complicated to spot are the twists and turns in the storyline and for that, Lean takes from some of his early British films. From the moment that Adele leaves the cave screaming and bleeding, the tone of the movie turns sharply serious with very high tension. A similar effect happens in The Passionate Friends when Howard arrives in the Alps to find that Mary and Steven spent the day together, prompting him to file divorce papers and completely turning his back on Mary. The major difference between the films in this sense is that there was nothing obvious in the storyline building up to provoke such a downward spiral in A Passage to India while in The Passionate Friends, there was the alleged affair coupled with Mary and Steven’s past behaviour. Most notably is the question of whether or not the charge of attempted rape against Aziz is true or not. Having been given so little information during and after the aggression, one is left wondering what exactly went on in the first place. This is similar to Emile’s death by poisoning in Madeleine. It is largely suspected that he died from arsenic poisoning yet we neither see him ingesting it voluntarily on his own nor do we see Madeleine ever administering it to him in any form. The only things that exist are suggestions without explanations. Also worth considering is the similarity between Adele and Rosy from Ryan’s Daughter; both being considered different kinds of spirits who have unrealistic ideas about the world. There is a moment when Aziz grabs Adele’s hand to head up the mountain towards the caves and it figuratively symbolises the first kiss that Rosy and Randolph shared. Though these separate moments had varied intensities to one another, they dually set the stage of what was to come for the lead characters.


My Thoughts

As always, David Lean outdoes himself by giving us a beautiful told and richly made film that stands the test of time. His attention to detail makes the story come to life, allowing the viewer to emotionally connect with the characters all the while revelling in the breathtaking scenery. Lean’s patented trademark of filmmaking is overwhelmingly present throughout the duration of the film although it is clear that his salad days were behind him. Perhaps this feeling is also a longstanding consequence of his long absence and not having full creative freedom (and access to a generous budget) that would have allowed him to further spread his wings. In any case, this is a fitting addition to the international portion of his filmography and it is indeed sad to see that this would be his last picture. I find it extraordinary that critics would prejudge this film as “already being a masterpiece” when they tore apart Ryan’s Daughter, which consequently hurt Lean deeply. It seems to me that critics were attempting to cover their tracks for their, in my opinion, disgraceful and inaccurate criticism of the 1970 film. Also, I got the feeling that their pats on the back were not genuine and more of a “good to have the old man back working again” sort of appreciation. Though Lean was not compensated for his film, both Peggy Ashcroft and Maurice Jarre were, making it so that he ended his career with his films having obtained a staggering total of 28 Oscars. Not that Lean needed to lighten the blow in any way but he certainly had a remarkable career indeed.

This is not my favourite Lean film but I did enjoy watching it a great deal. I was left unsatisfied by the latter part of the film, up until the court verdict and thereafter. This is something that I must not blame on Lean, however, because he remained true to the original story by Forster. As I often mentioned in my Lean reviews, he almost relished in leaving open endings to his films which was frustrating yet very inventive because it forces you to keep hashing through the film(s) in order to balance the different possible conclusions. I still highly recommend this film and truly believe that it is imperative to all cinephiles that they discover David Lean’s complete works. Though it may sound overdramatic to say so, it is a life-changing experience – for the better!

The film has been beautifully restored by Carlotta Films on Blu-ray.


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