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visitors since May 12, 2002
January 20, 2002
A Passage to India

Earlier today I went down to the Astor to see David Lean's film of A Passage to India. I was surprised to discover that it was released in 1984, the same year as the Apple Macintosh, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. and William Gibson's Neuromancer.

I have a hazy memory of Forster's book being on the syllabus of a politics and literature course I took at university, which meant that I never read the book and, until today, had never seen the film. This now seems a somewhat wasted opportunity, because the film was fascinating. And there was a great deal of discussion about A Passage to India in the course, none of which I was able to follow. Oh well. I'm sure I was reading something equally interesting, such as a comic book.

The silliest thing in the film is Alec Guinness in brownface. That's the only thing that really dates it, and the only thing that a 2002 audience smirked at. Casting Guinness in this role just seemed unnecessary and unconvincing: all the other Indian characters are played by Indians, and they're all superb.

The film also has a tremendous sense of imagery, which is obvious from the very first shot. Once the credits finish we see a crowd of umbrellas in a London street on a rainy night, and a large model of a P & O liner that offers cruises to India and China. Out of the crowd steps a young Judy Davis, who looks at the model of the ship, and smiles. The next shot is in daylight, and features a ticket being written out on P & O stationary in the name of Miss Adela Quested. The ticket seller looks up, and again we see Judy Davis. Within thirty seconds, we know who this person is, where she is and where she's going. It's very clear, rapid, effective storytelling.

The film's strong visual sense gets across a great deal of information about India, but the film's sonic sense doesn't do likewise. A large number of my own memories of India have to do with what the place sounded like, and presumably this is because India sounds like nothing else on Earth. Sadly, A Passage to India doesn't make much of an effort to convey this, which I found strangely displeasing.

Likewise with the music, which I found fairly unimpressive. It was just the standard variety of Sweeping Hollywood Emotive, which could be just as easily transported to a film about explorers on the North Pole, or a love story between two postmen, or a pastoral tragedy about a farmer in desperate correspondence with a woman who travels around San Diego on a pogo stick. So the film does a splendid job of showing us what India looks like, while inhabiting a kind of sonic vacuum. It's a curious mix.

It's also obvious that Forster is sympathetic to the Indian independence movement. He portrays most of the English characters as being on the arrogant-but-dim side, an approach which I enjoyed immensely. And I was in the mood to appreciate this, having just seen Eddie Izzard's astounding concert film Dress to Kill.

One of Izzard's routines concerns the clever strategy that European powers employed to gain colonial possessions, which essentially revolves around the "cunning use of flags." Eddie then stages an imaginary conversation between an English imperialist arriving in India and a local representative. The Indian man quite politely asks the Englishman to leave, because India is already the home of five hundred million Indians, who therefore have a substantial claim to the running of their own country. But the Englishman is not so easily dissuaded, and asks the question that the Indian has no answer for: "but do you have a flag?" And when he gets a negative answer, he adds: "no flag, no country ... according to the rules that I've just made up."

Eddie Izzard and E.M. Forster: both Englishmen, and both believers in the idea that people are quite capable of running their own country without help from any other Englishmen. That's the funny thing about the English way of running an empire: its central value was politeness.

As a result, they lost the lot. But at least the process produced some great stories.

     Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:40 PM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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