From the vault: 1984
A Passage to India
Starring: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft
Director: David Lean
The film: The early 1980s saw a flurry of films and TV miniseries set in British India, with ambitious projects such as Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1983), The Far Pavilions (1984) and The Jewel in the Crown (1984) leading up to A Passage to India, which, like Gandhi, earned a surprising 11 Oscar nominations.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, David Lean's epic of interracial misunderstanding, repressed sexuality and colonial snobbery was his final film.
The film, like the book, is set in the 1920s, and begins with a young woman, Adela Quested (played by Judy Davis) arriving in India with her prospective mother-in-law, Mrs Moore, to meet her fiance, the City Magistrate of Chandrapore. With his businesslike and unromantic attitude towards India and Indians, he soon falls out of favour with the idealistic Adela, and she and Mrs Moore befriend a local doctor, Aziz (Victor Banerjee, above), who invites them on an ambitious day trip to the Marabar Caves. While Mrs Moore languishes in the heat at the foot of the hills, Aziz and Adela make for the peak. Some time later, Adela is seen hurtling down the hill covered in blood, and a handwringing Aziz, pleading ignorance and innocence, is arrested and put on trial for rape.
Forster spent some time in India, for a while as private secretary to a maharaja, and had a canny and critical eye for the Raj and its workings. Lean's film sticks quite closely to his source material (although the ending is changed quite significantly), providing a cynical look at colonial attitudes and lifestyles of the time. A serious error, though, was the casting of Alec Guinness as an Indian schoolteacher - Guinness himself said it was his worst-ever role.
Evocative production design from exotic location specialist John Box (The World of Suzie Wong, Lawrence of Arabia), and Lean's keen eye for widescreen composition create one of the last major epics of computer-free cinema.
The extras: This new double-disc Collector's Edition from Sony Pictures includes an informative, well-prepared commentary by producer Richard Goodwin, which provides plenty of anecdotes and background detail. Disc 2 contains about an hour of new interview material divided into six parts and featuring cast and crew reminiscing, mostly positively, about their experiences. Also included is a short interview with Lean which has been carried over from the old MGM DVD released in 2003. Picture quality shows modest improvement on the earlier edition, although it is inexplicably cropped slightly. Sony has also just released this same package on the Blu-ray format.