Passage to India, A (1984): David Lean’s Oscar-Winning Epic, Starring Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft in Oscar Nominated Performance

David Lean’s first film in fourteen years (since “Ryan’s Daughter”), A Passage to India, also became his last. Hence, it was an eagerly-anticipated comeback as well as an honorable swan song, showered with Oscar nominations, if not actual awards.

Lean adapted to the screen E. M. Forster’s acclaimed novel–published in 1924 and considered by many to be his best–about racial prejudice and sexual repression in India, while under British rule.

He structures the narrative around two women, Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a young woman who has settled in India and is about to marry the town magistrate, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), her benevolent mother-in law, who’s visiting the region and exudes humanity.

Central piece of the drama is an excursion trip the two women take with Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) to the ancient and mysterious Marbar Caves and Adela’s later testimony that she had been raped there, though there is no clear evidence to what exactly had happened. Initial friendship and open-mindedness turn into animosity, culture-collision, and ultimately tragedy.

Lean tries to reconcile the demands of an intimate, character-driven tale (including courtroom drama) and those of an outdoors historical epic in the manner of his previous big productions (“Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”).

Nonetheless, the text is always intelligent and the acting, particularly by Ashcroft, who won the Supporting Actress Oscar, is sublime.

Narrative Structure (How the Plot Unfolds)

Adela Quested is sailing from England to British Raj India with Mrs. Moore, the mother of her intended bridegroom, Ronny Heaslop, Mrs. Moore’s son from her first marriage.  Adela intends to see if there’s connection between her and Ronny, who’s the City magistrate in Chandrapor.

The British community is separated from the Indian population, while the Indian independence movement becomes stronger.

The local school superintendent Richard Fielding (Fox), brings introduce them to the the eccentric Hindu Brahmin scholar Professor Narayan Godbole. Mrs. Moore then meets by chance Dr. Aziz Ahmed, a local widower who is surprised by her kindness and lack of prejudice. Aziz offers to host an excursion to the Marabar Caves.

The initial exploration of the caves shows that the size of the party should be limited when Mrs. Moore suffers from claustrophobia and the noise from the large entourage echoes exponentially inside the caves. Mrs Moore encourages Adela and Aziz to continue their exploration alone with just one guide.

They reach the caves and, before entering, Aziz steps away to smoke a cigarette. He returns to find Adela has disappeared. Shortly afterwards, he sees her running down the hill, disheveled. She is picked up by the doctor’s wife, Mrs. Callendar, and taken to their home. Dr Callendar medicates Adela, who’s bleeding and delirious, with a hypodermic syringe.

Upon his return, Aziz, accused of attempting to rape Adela, and is jailed to await trial. Soon, the “scandalous” incident becomes a cause célèbre. Mrs. Moore doesn’t believe that Aziz committed any offence. She leaves for England, but while at sea, she dies of a heart attack.

In court, it becomes clear that Adela’s earlier signed accusation was incorrect and she recants. Aziz is celebrated for his innocence and Adela is abandoned to her own devices by the British except for Mr Fielding.

Aziz rids himself of his western associations and vows to find a new job in another Indian state; he opens a clinic in the lake area near Srinagar, Kashmir.

Meanwhile, through Adela, Fielding has married Stella, Mrs. Moore’s daughter from second marriage. Aziz eventually reconciles with Fielding.  In the last reel,  Aziz writes to Adela, asking for forgiveness for taking so long to appreciate the courage she jad exercised when she withdrew her accusation in court.

Cast

Adela Quested (Judy Davis)
Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee)
Mrs. Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft)
Richard Fielding (James Fox)
Godbole (Alec Guinness0
Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers)
Turton (Richard Wilson)
Mrs. Turton (Antonia Pemberton)
McBryde (Michael Culver)
Mahmoud Ali (Art Malik)

Oscar nominations: 11

Picture, produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin
Director: David Lean
Screenplay (Adapted): David Lean
Actress: Judy Davis
Supporting Actress: Peggy Ashcroft
Cinematography: Ernest Day
Film Editing: David Lean
Art Direction-Set Decoration: John Box and Leslie Tomkins; Hugh Scaife
Costume Design: Judy Moorcroft
Score (Original): Maurice Jarre
Sound: Graham Hartstone, Nicolas Le Messurier, Michael A. Careter, John Mitchell

Oscar awards: 2

Supporting Actress
Score

Oscar Context

In 1984, “A Passage to India” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “Amadeus,” which swept most of the Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Milos Forman, “The Killing Fields,” “Places in the Heart,” and “A Soldier’s Story.”

Sally Field won her second Best Actress in five years; the first Oscar was for “Norma Rae.” The Supporting Actor winner was Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields,” and the Supporting Actress Dame Peggy Ashcroft for “A Passage to India.” There was a debate among critics of the time whether Ashcroft’s role is a lead (co-starring with Judy Davis) or a supporting one.

Maurice Jarre achieved some kind of a record by receiving his third Scoring Oscar for a David Lean picture; he previously won for “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.”

“The Killing Fields” won the Cinematography Oscar for Chris Menges and the Editing Oscar for Jim Clark.

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