A Passage To India

A Passage To India (1984)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Peggy Ashcroft, Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis, James Fox, Alec Guinness
Extras: Reflections of David Lean, Theatrical Trailers, Talent Files

When David Lean’s "A Passage to India" opened in 1984, some saw it as a showdown between the glory days of literate epic filmmaking and the "feel-good" ethos of the Lucas/Spielberg popcorn juggernauts. Who better than the director of "Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" to show the film school grads how to make a movie? As always, anything burdened by such mythic expectations is bound to fail ("Phantom Menace" anyone?) Sadly, I joined the chorus of detractors lamenting "Passage" as a poor shadow of the "Leanscapes" that catapulted "Lawrence" and "Zhivago" into film history.

Amazing how age softens perspective. A fresh viewing of "Passage," courtesy of Columbia TriStar Home Video’s new DVD, reveals an eloquent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s complex novel about British colonialism in 1928 India and the cultural and sensual abysses that separate men and women, English and Indian, sensualist and ascetic.

"Passage" tells the story of Adela Quested (Judy Davis) en route to India to visit her fiancé, Ronny Heslop (Nigel Havers). Traveling with Heslop’s mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft, in an Oscar-winning performance), Adela arrives in the city of Chandrapore to find an alien environment, yet evocative in a way she cannot fathom. Mrs. Moore is similarly captivated by India, but is less than admiring of the treatment of the Indians by their colonial masters, i.e. her peers. One night, Mrs. Moore visits an abandoned mosque. There, she encounters local physician Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee). At first he charges her with blasphemy, entering a holy place improperly. When she assures him that she showed due respect by removing her shoes before entering, the two strike a friendship that might signal some understanding between the two cultures.

At a lunch party given by British teacher Richard Fielding (James Fox), who does not share his countrymen’s disrespect for India, Adela meets Aziz for the first time while Mrs. Moore and Fielding converse about metaphysics with Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness, donning yet another disguise for Lean), a Brahmin mystic. Adela is fascinated by Aziz’s juggling of their two societies. In an effort to impress Adela and fit in as more of an Englishman, Aziz impulsively calls for an expedition to the mysterious Marabar caves outside town.

What at first seems (to both sides) a breach of etiquette turns sinister when Aziz is accused by Adela of attempting to rape her during a visit to one of the caves. Now seen as a political tool by both sides, Aziz’s trial threatens to escalate resentment into outright bloodshed. As everyone tries to solve the riddle of what really happened, Aziz and Adela must find some way to break away from the societal and cultural maelstroms threatening their freedom.

Adhering closely to the Forster novel, Lean’s screenplay adaptation finds greater interest (and rightly so) in the circumstances that led to the incident as well as the aftermath. Davis’ Adela is repressed and cloistered comfortably within British society. Both Aziz and India arouses her, awakening sensual feelings capable of enlightenment…or destruction. Lean visualizes this conflict with a scene not in the book. When Adela goes bicycling outside the city (Chapter 8), she comes across the ruins of an ancient temple. Almost voyeur-like, she spies the numerous statues of couples having sex. Adela herself almost reaches a fever pitch when wild monkeys literally expel her from their feral sanctuary. The lack of respect that Adela showed in her judgment is a direct contrast to Mrs. Moore’s deference when she enters the mosque and meets Aziz. Yet Lean gave us the conflict in purely visual terms, no less grand than the match-to-sunrise jump cut in "Lawrence" or the endless icy tundras of "Zhivago. "Passage" proved a worthy valediction to Lean’s career. Between directing, scripting and editing the film, we see Lean in complete command in his storytelling faculties. Even the final scene, straight out of the book, works better in the film than on the page.

The transfer also succeeds on every level. The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> image is rock solid and sharp throughout the presentation. (Politics at the time forced Lean to shoot the film in the more TV-friendly 1.85 aspect ratio instead of the wider 2.35 Cinemascope format. Back in 1984, this compromise seemed outrageous. Again, after watching the film, I found Lean’s "flat" framing just as carefully composed as anything on his ultra-wide canvas.) The source materials are in terrific shape, as there are no blemishes and defects visible. Colors are rich and vivid but natural. Deep blacks and careful contrast control provide excellent detail delineation. Digital and compression artifacts are completely absent.

The <$DS,Dolby Surround> audio plays adequately; to be expected as the sound mix is not particularly flashy to begin with. Maurice Jarre’s score, which weaves Hindu music with Cole Porter-esque rhythm, never overpowers the dialogue or sound effects. Surround channel activity is relegated primarily to music fill. French and Spanish mono tracks are also available on the disc.

The main perk of the special features is a section entitled "Reflections on David Lean." While the title implies a testimonial to David by his peers, it’s actually an eight-minute collection of soundbites, shot on video, from David about the making of "Passage" and some thoughts about such collaborators as William Holden and Alec Guinness. There’s no identification of the source or circumstances of the observations, but he’s never less than fascinating when talking about the difficulties of shooting in India or how Forster wouldn’t let grant the movie rights because he "distrusted filmmaking."

Trailers from "Lawrence of Arabia," "Bridge on the River Kwai," and "Guns of Navarone" appear on the disc, mirroring the same trailers available on the "Lawrence" DVD. Again, no "Passage" trailer (Did Columbia not create one back in ’84?) The trailers are <$PS,letterboxed> with decent audio and video.

Check out "A Passage to India." A thoughtful, quiet gem awaits you.