TBT: A Passage to India (1984)


The early 1980s saw a renewed interest by the British in poking at their own contentious past in India, resulting in a series of different historical costume movies and TV series. There was Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1983), The Far Pavilions (1984),  The Jewel in the Crown (1984), and A Passage to India (1984). The later was also the first of  E.M. Forster’s novels to be adapted for film and was followed by A Room with a View (1985), Maurice (1987), Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), and Howards End (1992).

A Passage to India (1984)

Forster died in 1970 and had resisted having his works adapted during his lifetime. He allowed Indian author Santha Rama Rau to adapt A Passage to India for the stage in 1957 but refused any film adaptions because he wanted to preserve the ambiguity of actually what happens in the Marabar Caves. Forster preferred allowing the reader to make their own judgement between the Indians and the British. Forster left the rights to his novels to King’s College, Cambridge, after his death, and they continued to refuse all requests and offers to make this book into a movie. Even Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were turned down. It wasn’t until 1980 that a new provost came in and was able to make a deal with Lord Brabourne, who had been seeking rights to the film for 20 years, as producer. He chose David Lean as director. They were supposed to use Santha Rama Rau’s stage script, but Lean imperiously deemed it “amateur” and rewrote it himself.

A Passage to India (1984)

The result is definitely more cinematic, taking advantage of India’s dramatic landscapes with David Lean’s well-known flair. But while the film makes it more clear about what happens in those caves and supposedly makes the British seem like the bad guys, the film still is about the British perception of what this means and how this affects the British people, not the Indians. As one blog post notes, the film starts and ends in England, while the book starts and ends in India. Of course, the novel is written by a Brit from a British point of view, but Forster was more careful than Lean to veil the concrete meanings and allow for layered understandings (perhaps living as a closeted homosexual in a repressive society made that second nature to Forster?). The film version has broad visuals on its side and does preserve a great deal of Forster’s witty dialog, performed by excellent actors. But something is lost in translation.

A Passage to India (1984)

These Indian women are used like jeweled decorations at the Brits’ garden party. They have no names and little dialog.

A Passage to India (1984)

Mrs. Moore (Dame Peggy Ashcroft), like all the Brits, seems uncomfortable surrounded by the Indian women.

A Passage to India (1984)

Alec Guinness, center, in brownface to play Professor Godbole. He was irritated by the director cutting out much of his part in the final film, but I can only hope that means we were spared more of this stereotypical performance. You could do better, Sir Alec.

A Passage to India (1984)

Miss Adela Quested (Judy Davis) gets ready to recant at the trial. It’s as if the lines on her dress point up to her face in accusation.

A Passage to India (1984)

Finally, Aziz (Victor Banerjee) is triumphant.


What do you think of A Passage to India?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

7 Responses

  1. Maria D.

    I loved this adaptation and found it haunting in how it dealt with cross cultural romance and a woman’s lack of sexual awareness during that time period.

  2. Susan Pola

    I wish Merchant Ivory made it. I prefer the book, but the costumes are lovely and the photography gorgy. And it introduced me to Judy Davis.
    So on the whole, not bad.

  3. Lady Hermina De Pagan

    I had to read the book and watch the movie for College. I was unimpressed with the movie. while it was visually stunning, the story left me flat. Even the book was meh in my opinion. I actually wanted to smack Miss Questad, hard!

  4. Malena

    Let me begin with the frocks. Because Adela was supposed to be so plain, her costumes were supposed to reflect her lack of allure, so there is nothing memorable there. I must say that in terms of eye catching factors I was drawn more to the landscape and Nigel Havers. At athe time I thought him the most beautiful man on earth, even when he played a dick like in APTI.
    Thanks for pointing out there are no important female Indian characters in APTI. Now that I think about it, there were no important Indian women in The Raj Quartet, only secondary characters like Lily Chatterjee or Kumar’s aunt. Amazing, I must go back to John Masters novels to think of something like a Hindu heroine.
    APTI is not an exponent of racism in the British Raj, not like The Jewel in the Crown or another great but forgotten novel that has never made it to TV, Louis Bromfield’s The Rains Came. To me the most depressing aspect of the wallah’s prejudices is not Miss Quested’s ridiculous accusation or the way the Brits gang around her, but the destruction of the Fielding -Assiz bromance, and how relieved I was at the end when they were back at it together.
    In college, I was told Foster was much more into Eastern religions than in the Anglo-Hindu relationships, that Mrs. Moore was uncomfortable with Indians and English alike, because she was dying and she found much more comfort within herself than in human company.

    • Fran in NYC

      I never read the Raj Quartet, the source for the TV series The Jewel in the Crown, but the series I saw was very critical of British racial and social attitudes towards Indian society. A lot of the plot hinges on such a critique. I don’t see the series as an exponent of racism in the British Raj,

      • Malena

        Sorry, if I didn’t make myself clear. I meant the description of racial prejudices in the Anglo community towards the Hindu community in the days of the British Raj. I never implied that Paul Scott, or the series, were biased against the Indians. On the contrary, both are very critical of English bigotry in that period and milieu
        On the other hand, nowadays we perceive the casting of white actors in ethnic roles, o the absence of ethnic characters playing significant part in a story or even having less female ethnic characters within the said story as non-PC or plain racist. As Trystan pointed out the only Hindu females in APTI are a bunch of anonymous giggling ladies in saris that are invited to tea for Mrs. Moore’s benefit. She made me realize then that there were not important female Hindu characters in The Raj Quartet, Lily Chatterjee being an exception and she only appears in the first book.

  5. Karen K.

    I read the book a few years ago and was surprised at how underwhelmed I was — I loved Howards End and A Room with a View, and I really expected to love APTI.

    And I had completely forgotten that Alec Guinness was in brownface for this movie — in 1984! Seriously?? I think Amy Irving played an Indian in The Far Pavilions, because, clearly, there were no Indian actresses available. Hmpf.