Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Passage to India 1985

*David Lean ( 1908-91)*168m*Peggy Ashcroft*Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Alec Guiness, Roshan Seth, Sayeed Jaffrey*

The film is based on E.M. Forster's novel, which I have not read. It is set in India in the 1920s. I have been for decades a fan of David Lean. Lawrence of Arabia, which I saw in the sixties, was the seminal movie in my life, in which I saw for the first time what a film can be. The Bridge on the River Kwai comes a close second, addicted to war movies as I was . The present movie is not vintage Lean, with the vast vision and perspective . But it is certainly an unputdownable entertainer and  paints colonialism in general with  broad if not so deft strokes. However, the picture of India painted in the period referred to is silly and derogatory, which is attributable more to Lean than to Forster. To think he had an Indian wife for eighteen years.

"Only connect" says Forster in Howard's End. Looking at this film, the degree of disconnection that existed in India between the whites and the Indians is amazing. It is as though the English had positioned themselves as the superiormost in the caste system. "It is well accepted that the coloured races are physically attracted to the white but not vice-versa", argues the counsel in a trial for attempt to rape. In fact, the disconnect must have been more like a chasm, meticulously cultivated, and the means by which a miniscule of disciplened, wealthy and armed  foreigners managed to extend a lucrative occupation for so long. It is but a step short of apartheid, or apartheid cleverly disguised. It is also true that the colonial mentality has not died out because the wealthy classes have replaced the colonial masters and the poor and backward continue in their separate world.

However this is not quite the true India of 1928. Lean seems to see India as populated by mindless mobs , guided by irrational impulses and beliefs lurching like a river in spate. Even the educated and rebellious are shown to be rabidly emotional. In reality this was the period of  Gandhi, when he was awakening and organising the discontent by unconventional , revolutionary strategies . He was teaching the meaning of dignity and courage. The spiritual tidal wave that had appeared is nowhere visible in the movie. Indians are shown to be almost subhuman and deserving of contempt. After all, Lean was born in 1908, and for all his cinematic genius, is of the mind of adventurers and empire builders like Clive, Churchill and Aguirre. He seems to have been but a shallow humanist.

The picture is one sided. Some of the characters are quite improbable. Never have I seen anyone like Professor Godbole. Nor is the speech anything like the way Indians speak (even English). The intonation is false, even for Victor Banerjee, who is Indian, as Aziz. Lean may be a master of the panoramic and the vastness of a historical perspective, but seems limited in characterisation. Certainly he has no feel for India. His vision remains Kipling-esque. It is the India of snake charmers, just  thinly separated from the rope trick.

There is some scope for his panoramic cinematography.  There are trains, as there were in Zhivago, Kwai and Lawrence. The Indian Railways are surely the crowning  glory among the good things the British left behind. Trains  pierce through the vast plains or the lush green hills. Crowded railway stations, where the select mingle with commoners and dogs, and the military bands blare a welcome. Luxurious , lurching dining cars, where the white man preens. Every white man seems to have been like a king, merely by virtue of skin colour. The sublime and battered erotic sculptures in the forest, which send the young post Victorian heroine into a dizzy spell. There are some magnificent closing shots of the Himalayas, worthy of the maker of Lawrence of Arabia.

Attenboroughs Gandhi is a far more texturally accurate account of the period under narration. Satyajit Ray's Chess Players remains unmatched for it's understanding of the British period. Through the finely etched and inspired portraits of General Outram and Nawab Wajid Ali, he captures the essence like a two-sided mirror.

Finally, I seem to have outgrown Lean as my idol of younger years. But a movie well worth the penny.

Roger Ebert's review


Gaurav said...

While I agree with you on many points, I'd like to point out that this is an adaptation of Forster's novel and has been adapted by a fellow Brit. So, the movie must be seen as an invaluable exercise in observing colonial India from the POV of the British. Cinematically, I think it does its job in a very competent way. The only worrying thing is the characterization which as you point out, has quite a few flaws.
Lean still remains a very great director. Don't look at his overrated later films, go back to his adaptations of Dickens and Brief Encounter, which possesses a level of realism only equalled by the best of neo-realism.

Nathanael Hood said...

I always felt that the last half of David Lean's career was spent trying to reconstruct and recapture the magic of "Lawrence of Arabia." I dunno. All of his films that he did after Lawrence seemed to try much too hard to be epic.

S. M. Rana said...

Belonging as I do to the post war generation, war movies always struck a chord--I wonder if you have seen Bridge on the River Kwai? Billy Wilder's Stalag 17?