As I mentioned before, I watched A Passage to India, and it really improved my mood. But it isn’t because it is a feel-good movie. The denouement is perhaps like that, but getting there is hell. The film is highly political and it plays a lot with the concept on the individual and collective levels. And it is in this way that the film is structured.
The first part of the film is focused on the collective. We see a lot of the British ruling class. They are, as a group, not very sympathetic. Just the same, you see their dilemma. None of them want to be in India. They remind me very much of the 1% in the United States. They are part of the power elite, but that mostly just allows them to see how the truly rich and powerful live. If they were truly successful, they’d be in England. And that fact is painfully on display in the film.
The description of The Ugly American seems quite fitting, “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive…” Or more directly, there is George Orwell’s essay “Shooting an Elephant,” where he shows how imperialism was a trap for the British. The one good thing is that you know all these people will be released from their self imposed bondage within two decades.
Throughout this first part of A Passage to India, we follow two visitors: the young Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and the much older Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft). They both want to see “the real India.” So they are sympathetic. But as the Indian protaganist, Dr Aziz, notes at the beginning, “They all become exactly the same. I give any Englishman two years… I give [the women] six months…” This is said somewhat in jest. Dr Aziz admires the British. This he will come to regret.
Mrs Moore and Dr Aziz meet at night, in a mosque. Dr Aziz is impressed with Mrs Moore’s respect for their customs (she removed her shoes before entering). This starts a series of events that leads to Dr Aziz taking Adela and Mrs Moore on a trip to the Marabar Caves. It comes about because he is too embarrassed to let them see his humble house. But throughout all of this, Adela has something of a sexual awakening. And she becomes attracted to Dr Aziz.
Adela’s sexual awaking is rendered with only images. It is director David Leen at his very best. Adela takes a bike ride and comes upon an abandoned Hindu temple with much suggestive sculpture. As she stares transfixed at a sculpture of a man and woman kissing, she hears cries. She’s surrounded by monkeys who make their home there. They chase her and she runs away, terrified.
There is a clear distinction between Adela and Mrs Moore. While the older woman always sees reality clearly and fearlessly, the younger woman lives in her own world. It’s impossible to say if the monkeys really exist. But whether real or not, they represent the fear she has of her own sexuality. And this scene is repeated roughly 45 minutes later on the expedition to the Marabar Caves. But in that case, Dr Aziz is present. What happens is never fully explained. But Adela runs screaming down the mountain and accuses Dr Aziz of trying to rape her. He is promptly arrested. And 45 minutes after that, Adela recants and Dr Aziz is freed.
So A Passage to India starts with the collective English contrasted with the collective Indians. And it ends (effectively) in a courtroom with Adela and Dr Aziz facing each other — representatives of their cultures. Dr Aziz cannot understand why Adela has acted as she has and he is not quick to forgive. And Adela cannot understand her own actions. Dr Aziz becomes more committed to Indian independence, just as his country would. And Adela goes back to England, just as her country would soon do.
A Passage to India as Allegory
It is only after the bonds of imperialism are cut that the British and the Indians can reconcile because it is only then that they can be equals. From the standpoint of a 1984 film, it ends in a most pleasant way. I suspect if I had read the book in 1924, I would have found it troubling indeed. One could, I think, write the same novel with Israel and Palestine.
Speaking of Israel and Palestine, West Bank Story is a fun little film.