Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Passage to India


Colonialism and the clash of cultures. Dr. Aziz hangs with a lot of fellow Indians who are opposed to British rule, and he says he doesn’t like them, but in his heart he wants to be British, or at least to mingle, which simply isn’t done, old chap. Adela and her prospective mother-in-law are newly arrived on the subcontinent, and they want to see the “real” India, not the imported parcels of England which is all most Brits see. Aziz arranges an outing to the Marabar Caves. He and his friends have overproduced this little picnic to the point that it is a certain disaster … but no one expected what actually happened, which is Adela fleeing the caves in hysterical panic, and accusing Aziz of attempted rape. A trial is held … and I won’t go into more plot, but Aziz is left embittered, and becomes a true Indian for the first time, wanting no further contact with the Brits.

Now, it is a provable fact that the ordinary Indian middle-class citizen fared much better materially and in terms of social justice under the British Raj than under the local Maharajahs and various other poobahs who reigned before the colonizers arrived. Your life was worth little then, it could be taken at the whim of the powerful. Under them, Aziz would probably never have had a trial. And yet history has proven time and again that if one is going to be degraded and oppressed, one would prefer to be shat upon by someone of one’s own culture. The British (and all the colonial powers) took their snotty attitudes of superiority with them wherever they went. They sincerely believed they were helping out the savages (Kipling’s “White man’s burden”)—and they were, in some ways—but along with that came the assumption that the wogs could never be really British, that brown and black-skinned people were inherently inferior to the white races. (Gee, where have we heard that before? England in 2008, maybe? Pakis?) This is intolerable. I would find it intolerable if the situation were reversed, and so would you.

This may be the weakest of David Lean’s epics, but that’s not much of a condemnation, when you consider that among his small output were Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Nobody’s ever handled the epic form better, but he seems a little lost in this smaller story. But the scenes of India are great, and a young Judy Davis (29 at the time) is just amazing in this role.