David Lean directed “A Passage to India,” a 1984 film based on the same-titled book written by British author E.M. Forster in 1924. This movie stars Judy Davis as Adela, who travels to India to visit her fiancé Ronny Heaslop. While on an expedition to see the “real India,” Adela is attacked by an Indian native. The British government accuses an Indian doctor who is innocent of the crime.
The movie begins with a pair of British women, Adela and Mrs. Moore, traveling from England to India to visit Mrs. Moore’s son Ronny. The women meet Dr. Aziz, who takes them on a trip to explore some caves in the Indian countryside. There, an unknown assailant attacks Adela. The film shows Aziz looking on as she runs away from the assault. However, the colonial government arrests Aziz for the crime and makes him stand trial.
As in Forster’s novel, Lean set his film in 1920s India, about 25 years before India would gain its independence from British rule. Nigel Havers plays Ronny Heaslop, an official in the British Raj colonial government who oversees a provincial town. In the 1920s, India had existed as a colony of the British since the 1600s. The film shows some of the unrest that would eventually lead to a non-violent revolution and gain India its own nationhood. Before and during the trial, Indian natives protested the arrest and indictment of Aziz and held rallies outside the courthouse against what they viewed as one more injustice on the part of the colonial British government.
Under British colonial rule, a form of racial and class hostility existed between the British and the native Indians. This film explores those issues by contrasting the trusting and open relationship that initially develops between Moore and Aziz and the condescending attitude toward the Indians displayed by Heaslop. During Colonial rule, the British created a separate system of education and culture. The movie depicts some of this conflict in Adela’s wavering between her conscience and knowing that Aziz did not assault her, and her fiancé Ronny’s insistence that Aziz, as an Indian, must be guilty. Lean’s movie, in many ways, parallels the themes and events of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” although Forster wrote his novel before Lee’s book appeared.
The resolution to the conflict in the film, like the aftermath of British colonial rule, leaves none of the characters satisfied. Indian natives can celebrate their small victory, but the British remain in power for another quarter-century. India, even after independence and nationhood, stays as a member of the British Commonwealth. Lean shot his movie after India gained independence. While Dr. Aziz symbolizes the injustices endured by Indian citizens under the hand of British colonial rule, the movie asks him -- and all the former Indian subjects -- to forgive the British. The movie concludes by showing Aziz writing a letter many years later to Adela, in which he expresses the sentiment of forgiveness that the movie seems to hope all former subjects will achieve.
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