Professor C. continues his seminar series, in this case with E.M. Forster, and “A Passage to India.” The work has particular meaning here, in light of my own 1982 trip. But beyond that, as Professor C. says, lie implications for Gay Pride this week in the USA. Belonging, love, power, and cultural dislocation have always woven their difficult threads through society.
David Lean’s Passage to India (1984) opens with umbrellas moving past an office window where there’s a picture of a P&O ship. Raising her umbrella to see the ship is Adela Quested, about to book passage for India, there to visit Ronny Heaslop and find out if she really wants to marry him – and marry India.
The umbrellas and the rain capture much of what’s English about England. British imperialism, in its least imperial aspect, was a flight to the sun. Countless English and Scots went “out” to India or Arabia or Ethiopia or East Africa or Egypt. On the first day of a trip I took to Egypt, mostly with English travelers, I remember a nice English woman exclaiming, as she emerged from her room into the Egyptian sunlight, about the miserable winter she had just left behind. I think the romance of the sun made a fair part of what sent Richard Burton and T. E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell and Wilfred Thesiger and so many others off on their quests.
Early in Forster’s novel is a hymn to the sun’s generative power: “when the sky chooses, glory can rain” – not English “rain” – “into the Chandrapore bazaars or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun…” Who would want to spend a winter in England if something warmer and dryer could reasonably be found? But sometimes we bring the rain with us: in the film, after Adela has recanted her accusations against Dr. Aziz and he has been set free, his English friend Fielding stands in pouring rain while Aziz rushes off to a party celebrating his release. When the film ends, the rain is falling outside Adela’s London window while she reads Aziz’s letter of forgiveness and atonement. The final shot shows her face, framed by lace curtains, looking out the window streaked with raindrops, as though they were tears.
Lean’s film was a big success. Vincent Canby liked it –“intimate, funny and moving” – save for the musical score. Roger Ebert called it “one of the greatest screen adaptations I have ever seen.” It did very well at the Oscars (eleven nominations, including best picture) and Golden Globes (five nominations). As Mrs. Moore, Ronny Heaslop’s mother, the wonderful Peggy Ashcroft was everybody’s best supporting actress. As Adela, the equally wonderful Judy Davis was nominated for best actress by the Academy. Lean was nominated as best director and for best screenplay by the Golden Globes. The musical score that Canby disliked so much – it has “nothing to do with Forster, India, the time or the story” – took both awards as “best original score.” The Amazon reviewers of the DVD are almost all of them impressed: “magnificent and exquisite wrought”; “must see”; “a gem”.
But colonial spectacles on the big screen are risky business. An Indian reviewer on Amazon proves it. “I am an Indian,” he wrote, “I adore the way Forster wrote about India,” but the film is another story. Lean has fallen “for the standard shrinkwrapped clichés about India that any western director indulges in.” The casting is awful: “an atrocious Alec Guinness trying to pass off as a Brahmin Professor,” and Victor Banerjee, “absurdly over-eager,” who “struts about” as Aziz. The whole thing is “borderline idiotic.” Having criticized film adaptations of Wharton’s House of Mirth and Ethan Frome for not living up to their great originals, I’m inclined to take an insider seriously (assuming that being Indian makes the critic an insider). Why is the difference in aesthetic judgments so pronounced?
The casting, in one instance, is certainly a problem. It’s not just political correctness to think Alec Guinness makes an odd Professor Godbole (pronounced God-bo-lee, I learned from the film, which I suppose is right, though I’ve always thought it was God-bole). Guinness’s Godbole comes close to caricature. And maybe Lean realized this too late. It’s said their relationship deteriorated during the filming and that Guinness was unhappy when he learned how much of his part had ended up on the cutting room floor But Victor Bannerjee, born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), was almost perfect as Aziz to my eyes. Certainly he didn’t “strut.” If anything he cringed, like the obsequious Indian of the western imagination. Perhaps that was a problem for an Indian viewer. Or was it that Banerjee, an upper class Bengali, wasn’t the right choice to play the Muslim Aziz? I’ve never been to India. I know it’s a hard place to understand.
If I were Indian, I might think India had been slighted in the film. It begins in England, it ends in England. It begins with Adela Quested, it ends with her. Forster novel begins and ends in India. In the film, we see Adela booking passage. In the novel, there’s no “passage” in the usual sense, we’re already there. The “passage” of the novel is that of mind flying across space and time. Forster’s remarkable first sentence sets the stage: “Except for the Marabar caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.” Instead of English umbrellas and shop windows, we start with a panoramic view that narrows slowly to sights of the city itself, as if in some aerial shot of Google earth, a city where all is “abased,” monotonous,” a “low but indestructible form of life.” Nothing extraordinary except the Marabar caves, a surpassing exception. This is the last we hear of the caves until Aziz, having made the polite mistake of suggesting the English ladies visit him, proposes the fatal outing to the caves in order to spare himself the embarrassment of entertaining at his bungalow. Aziz has never seen them himself, but Professor Godbole has. Aziz tries to stir up Adela’s interest: no doubt the caves are “‘immensely holy?” “ ‘ Oh no, oh no,’ ” says Godbole. Are they ornamented? “ ‘Oh no.’” Then maybe the famous caves are an “ ‘empty brag’”? “’No, I should not quite say that,” says Godbole. Then “describe them to this lady,’” says Aziz. “ ‘It will be a great pleasure,’” says Godbole. But “he forewent the pleasure.” The famous caves are ineffable, beyond describing – even though the novel describes them: “A tunnel eight feet long, five feet high, three feet wide, leads to a circular chamber about twenty feet in diameter. This arrangement occurs again and again throughout the group of hills, and this is all, this is a Marabar cave.”
The film’s ending differs even more than its beginning from Forster’s. Fielding and his pregnant wife Stella, Mrs. Moore’s daughter, have been to visit Aziz in his new home in the Himalayas, away from the British. In the film, Fielding and Stella, starting their journey back home, drive off and Aziz watches them go. Then we see Adela at her window in London. The novel ends, instead, with a memorable scene between Fielding and Aziz. They go riding together. Fielding confides to Aziz that he and Stella do not get on very well. But she is pregnant, perhaps things between them will improve. Fielding and Aziz ride on. They talk about England and India, joking and fighting all at once. Aziz gives a mock-heroic cheer, like a schoolboy at a football match, for the new India to come: “ ‘India shall be a nation! No foreigners of any sort! Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and all shall be one. Hurrah! Hurrah for India!’” Fielding mocks him: India will “ ‘rank with Guatemala and Belgium perhaps.’” Aziz answers: “ ‘we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then’” – he rode against him furiously – ‘and then,’ he concluded, half kissing him, ‘you and I shall be friends.’” Why not now, asks Fielding, holding Aziz “affectionately.’” But the horses and the earth and the sky “didn’t want it.” “ ‘Not yet.’”
When I began teaching in 1960, I was assigned, as were all newcomers, to teach a course called “Masterpieces of English Literature.” The choice of texts was up to me, but the course began somewhere near the start of English Lit. and ended somewhere near the end. I assigned Forster. But what did I have to say? Surely something about race, religion and reconciliation – but nothing, I’m equally sure, about what’s happening in that brilliant last scene between Fielding and Aziz. The horseplay, the half kissing, the affection, it was all lost on me. Forster’s homosexuality was not then generally known. His novel Maurice, with its theme of homosexual salvation, was not published until 1971, the year after he died. But I blame only my own naivete for not having understood. Yes I knew homosexuality existed — I wasn’t that naive – but the idea that homoerotic affection, however frustrated, could serve as a metaphor of reconciliation between races and religions, between colonizer and colonized, was beyond my grasp. In a great novel like Passage to India? I wonder how many gay students were in the class and understood better than I. If they did, it was not something in 1960 that would ever, ever have come up in the conversation.
Does this all mean that Lean’s film is as bad as the Indian reviewer on Amazon believed? I don’t think so. Definitely it is paler, notwithstanding all sorts of British-inspired pomp and pageantry. An Indian actor might have been found, someone able to make Godbole, as Forster calls him, a figure of “Ancient Night.” The crucial scene in the caves, when Adela thinks she has been sexually attacked by Aziz, might have been more deeply marked by a sense of its utter strangeness and mystery — except that’s not easy to bring off visually. Above all, perhaps, there might have been more of Forster’s sun and Indian light. Even so, not everything is lost. The film transforms an ineffable drama into a more domestic (and heterosexual) story of character and repressed sexuality that happens to happen on the great Indian stage. It is not a small achievement, though it strays far from the path Forster laid out.
Elephant, Feet in Pool, The Best Picture Project
Dame Peggy Ashcroft via Flickster
Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz, Judy Davis as Adela Quested, IMDb
Dr. Aziz and Adele via Turner Classic Movies.
Judy Davis as Adela Quested via Flickster