A Passage to India is a 1984 drama film directed by David Lean and based on the homonymous book written by Edward M. Forster. The story takes place in India in the early 20th century, that is, during British colonization. It is well known that Europeans have always seen colonization as a moral duty; however, economic and political factors played a key role as well. India was a very important British colony from an economic point of view, it was a country rich in natural resources and in a strategic position, enough to be considered the “jewel” of the British crown. The film addresses many important themes, chief amongst them the difficult interpersonal relationship between colonizers and colonized and the controversial relationship between man and nature.
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Just by looking at the protagonists, one can immediately perceive the clear predominance of the English race. Indeed, the main characters are all English, except for Dr. Aziz, who is, however, an Indian man fascinated by the English civilization. Dr. Aziz is an atypical Indian in that he gets on well with the English and especially with Mrs. Moore and Adela. The last two characters mentioned are in India on a visit to Ronny, Mrs. Moore’s son and Adela’s boyfriend. Ronny is the magistrate of Chandrapore, where he has been working for a few years. When the two women arrive in India, they have a sincere admiration towards the country and its people. Ronny, however, soon spoils their genuine interest by showing them the archetypal attitude of colonizers: he explains that he would not like to have any kind of relationships with these inferior people. It is the influence of Ronny’s English peers that has driven him to become unkind toward Indians; as a result, he regards the two women as naive since they do not understand that the inequality between the English and the Indian race is insuperable. Indeed, Ronny works as a magistrate in Chandrapore because no Indian in British India is considered skilled and clever enough to hold such a high office.
At the beginning of the movie, Dr. Aziz and the two women become really good friends and even spend some days visiting India together. Their friendship appears honest and unaffected by their racial and cultural differences; they seem a great example of human kindness. Nevertheless, a day trip to Marabar Caves proves fatal for the emergence of misunderstandings and of the inevitable subsequent problems. Delighted to visit the caves with Mrs. Moore and Adele, Dr. Aziz had perfectly planned the excursion and had arranged everything down to its smallest details. When Mrs. Moore decides to stop to rest a bit, she herself encourages Adela and Dr. Aziz to proceed up to the caves. Dr. Aziz helps Adela to climb, holding her hand. The movie director emphasizes the physical contact by zooming on their hands. What happens next is not clearly revealed to the audience. It seems that when Adela sees a black Indian hand shaking her white hand, she has a hallucination. She may remember her boyfriend’s prejudices against Indians and, possibly, some of the stories she may have heard about Indians make her believe that Dr. Aziz wanted to violate her. The most common hypothesis is that Adela becomes unconscious and, in an unjustified state of mind, she accuses Dr. Aziz of having assaulted her. However, after Dr. Aziz has been arrested and sent to prison, at the trial, even if with clear difficulty and hesitation, she admits that she was mistaken. In spite of the enormous goodwill of Dr. Aziz, who profoundly admires the two women and their positive intentions to explore a new land and get closer to a completely different race, the movie shows that it is virtually impossible for oppressed and oppressors to become great friends.
After Dr. Aziz’s trial, each individual ends up returning to his or her own cultural circle. Adela returns to Great Britain since she realizes that living in India and befriending people from a completely different and contrasting racial background is impossible, no matter their mutual best intentions. Dr. Aziz is released from prison and his Indian friends organize a big party for him. He does not invite any English and when Mr. Fielding, a close English friend of his, asks if he could join, he refuses. After the incident with Adela, Dr. Aziz comes to terms with the fact that there can be no true friendship between the two races, which have for a long time been characterized by substantial divergences. The movie, however, provides a glimpse of hope, as in the final scene, even if Dr. Aziz is now suspicious of all the English, he reconciles with his friend Fielding.
A second important theme explored in the movie is the relationship between man and nature. Consistent with the ideals of the Hindu religion, Indians are portrayed as people who demonstrate a clear empathy, a special relationship, with nature and animals. This togetherness, this ability to understand and share feelings with one another is a good omen as it symbolizes hope for friendship and peace amongst different races and cultures. Mr. Fielding has an enormous garden where nature seems to be welcoming and where Professor Godbole, an Indian friend, usually prays. However, the movie also shows that nature can even be very terrifying. This is best represented by the strange echo inside the Marabar Caves. After this day trip, which should have been an unforgettable and amazing new experience and a path to get closer to the Indian race, both Adela and Mrs. Moore are instead terrorized.
Overall, the movie seems to suggest that racial and cultural differences cannot be easily surmounted. The characters appear to have the best intentions to overcome their xenophobia – the irrational fear and distrust of that which is perceived to be foreign – but their efforts are not sufficient. It is important to note, however, that this conclusion needs to be placed in the correct historical context. What the movie really implies is that British imperialism and colonialism created conditions of iniquity and oppression in India, which in turn made it impossible for the English and the Indians to establish a mutually understanding relationship because it was never a relationship of equals.