A Passage to India (film)

A Passage to India

Original theatrical poster
Directed by David Lean
Produced by John Brabourne
Richard B. Goodwin
Screenplay by David Lean
Based on A Passage to India
by Santha Rama Rau
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography Ernest Day
Edited by David Lean
Distributed by Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment (UK)
Columbia Pictures (US)
Release dates
  • 14 December 1984 (1984-12-14)
Running time
163 minutes
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Budget £17 million[1]
Box office $27.2 million (US)[2]

A Passage to India is a 1984 drama film written and directed by David Lean. The screenplay is based on the play of the same name by Santha Rama Rau, which was based on the novel by E.M. Forster.

This was the final film of Lean's career, and the first feature-film he had directed in fourteen years, since Ryan's Daughter in 1970. Receiving universal critical acclaim upon its release with many praising it as Lean's finest since Lawrence of Arabia, A Passage to India received eleven nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Lean, and Best Actress for Judy Davis for her portrayal as Adela Quested. Peggy Ashcroft won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal as Mrs Moore, making her, at 77, the oldest actress to win the award, and Maurice Jarre won his third Academy Award for Best Original Score.


The film is set in the 1920s during the period of growing influence of the Indian independence movement in the British Raj. Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) sail from England to India, where Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), Mrs Moore's son and Adela's suitor, is a magistrate in the provincial town of Chandrapore. Adela is considering marriage to Ronny, but is visiting India accompanied by his mother to see if she can adapt to living in such a foreign place.

Both Adela and Mrs. Moore are excited to meet Indians and learn more of Indian culture. They are disappointed to find that the British community are overtly racist and live lives totally disconnected from the Indian population. They are pleased to meet the local school superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), who brings them to meet the eccentric elderly Hindu Brahmin scholar Professor Narayan Godbole (Alec Guinness). Mrs. Moore meets a junior doctor named Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee), a widower who is surprised by her kindness and lack of prejudice. Aziz offers to host an excursion to the local Marabar Caves.

The outing goes reasonably well until the women begin exploring the caves with Aziz and his sizeable entourage. Mrs Moore experiences an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that forces her to return to the open air. She encourages Adela and Aziz to continue their exploration but suggests they take just one guide. The three set off for caves far from the rest of the group, and before entering, Aziz steps away to smoke a cigarette. He returns to find Adela has disappeared; shortly after he sees her running headlong down the hill, bloody and dishevelled. She is picked up by the doctor's wife, Mrs. Callendar, and, delirious and exhausted, accuses Aziz of rape. Upon his return to Chandrapore, Aziz is jailed to await trial, and an uproar ensues between the local Indians and the British colonists.

The case becomes a cause célèbre among the British. When Mrs Moore makes it clear that she firmly believes in Aziz's innocence and will not testify against him, it is decided she should return to England. She subsequently suffers a fatal heart attack during the voyage and is buried at sea.

To the consternation of her fiancé and friends, Adela has a change of heart and clears Aziz in court. The Colonials are forced into an ignominious retreat while the Indians carry the exonerated man from the courtroom on their shoulders, cheering wildly just as the monsoons begin. Fielding looks after Adela since she has no one else to turn to. In the aftermath, Adela leaves India, while Dr Aziz, feeling betrayed by his friend Fielding, abandons his Western attire, dons traditional dress, and withdraws from ex-pat society, opening a clinic in the lake area near Srinagar, Kashmir. Meanwhile, through Adela, Fielding has married Stella Moore, Mrs Moore's daughter from her second marriage. Aziz eventually reconciles with Fielding and writes to Adela to convey his forgiveness.


  • Roshan Seth as Advocate Amrit Rao
  • Richard Wilson as Turton
  • Antonia Pemberton as Mrs. Turton
  • Sandra Hotz as Stella
  • H.S. Krishnamurthy as Hassan
  • Dina Pathak as Begum Hamidullah
  • Ashok Mandanna as Anthony
  • Z.H. Khan as Dr. Panna Lal
  • Mohammed Ashiq as Haq
  • Rashid Karapiet as Das
  • Ishaq Bux as Selim



E. M. Forster began writing A Passage to India during a stay in India from late 1912 to early 1913 (he was drawn there by a young Indian Muslim, Syed Ross Masood, whom he had tutored in Latin), completing it only after he returned to India as secretary to a maharajah in 1921. The novel was published on 6 June 1924.[3] It differs from Forster's other major works in the overt political content, as opposed to the lighter tone and more subdued political subtext in works such as Howards End and A Room With a View.

A Passage to India deals with the delicate balance between the English and the Indians during the British Raj.[4] The question of what actually happened in the caves remains unanswered in the novel. A Passage to India sold well and was widely praised in literary circles. It is generally regarded as Forster's best novel, quickly becoming a classic of English literature.[5]

Over many years several film directors were interested in adapting the novel to the big screen, but Forster, who was criticized when the novel was published, rejected every offer for the film rights believing that any film of his novel would be a travesty. He feared that whoever made it would come down on the side of the English or the Indians, and he wanted balance. However he did allow Indian author Santha Rama Rau to adapt the novel for the theatre in 1957.[6]

David Lean had read the novel and saw the play in London in 1960, and, impressed, attempted to purchase the rights at that time, but Forster, who rejected Santha Rama Rau's suggestion to allow Indian film director Satyajit Ray to make a film, said no.[7] Following Forster's death in 1970, the governing board of fellows of King's College at Cambridge inherited the rights to his books. However, Donald A Parry, chief executor, turned down all approaches, including those of Joseph Losey, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, and Waris Hussein, who after adapting Santha Rama Rau's play now wanted to make a feature film. Ten years later, when Professor Bernard Williams, a film enthusiast, became chief executor, the rights for a film adaptation became available.

Lord Brabourne, (John Knatchbull, 7th Baron Brabourne), whose father had been Governor of Bombay and later Governor of Bengal, and who was married to the daughter of Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, had sought the film rights for twenty years.[7] He had produced Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet and films based on Agatha Christie’s mysteries including the 1974 Murder on the Orient Express. In March 1981, John Brabourne and his business partner, Richard Goodwin, obtained the rights to make a film adaptation of A Passage to India.[7] The contract stipulated that Santha Rama Rau write the screenplay and it reserved the right to approve the director.

Brabourne, an admirer of the film Doctor Zhivago, wanted David Lean to direct the film. Lean was ready to break his 14-year hiatus from filmmaking following mostly negative reviews received for Ryan's Daughter in 1970. Since then, Lean had fought to make a two-part epic telling the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty, for which he could not obtain financing, and had given some thought about doing a film adaptation of Out of Africa, from the book by Isak Dinesen, which Sydney Pollack ultimately directed in 1985. By September 1981, Lean was approved as director and Santha Rama Rau completed a draft of the script.


The contract stipulated that Santha Rama Rau would write the screenplay. She had met with E. M. Forster; had successfully adapted A Passage to India as a play; and the author had charged her with preserving the spirit of the novel. However, Lean was determined to exercise input in the writing process. He met with Santha Rama Rau in Berkeley, Gloucestershire, and over ten days they talked about the novel and discussed the script.

The initial script by Santha Rama Rau pleased neither the producer, John Brabourne, nor David Lean. They considered it too worldly and literary, the work of a playwright, and unsuitable for a film. Most of the scenes took place indoors and in offices while Lean had in mind to film outdoor as much as possible. With India in the title of the film, he reasoned, audiences would expect to see many scenes filmed of the Indian landscape. Lean commented: "We are blessed with a fine movie title, A Passage to India. But it has built in danger; it holds out such a promise. The very mention of India conjures up high expectations. It has sweep and size and is very romantic". Lean did not want to present a poor man's India when for the same amount of money he could show the country's visual richness.

During 1982, Lean worked on the script. He spent six months in New Delhi, to have a close feeling of the country while writing. As he could not stay longer than that for tax reasons, then he moved to Zurich for three months finishing it there. Following the same method he had employed adapting Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, he went through Rau's original script, and his copy of the novel, picking out the episodes that were indispensable and passing over those that did not advance the plot. Lean typed out the whole screenplay himself correcting it as he went along, following the principle that scripts are not written, but rewritten.


The director cast Australian actress Judy Davis, then 28, as the naive Miss Quested after a two-hour meeting. When Davis gave her interpretation of what happened in the caves — “She can’t cope with her own sexuality, she just freaks out” — Lean said that the part was hers. Davis had garnered international attention in Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and had appeared in A Woman Called Golda (1982) as a young Golda Meir.

Lean wanted Celia Johnson, star of Brief Encounter, to play Mrs Moore, but she turned down the part and died before the film was released. The director then offered the part to Peggy Ashcroft, a stage actress who had appeared in films only sporadically. She was not enthusiastic when Lean asked her to be Mrs Moore. "Mr Lean, I’m 75-years-old," she protested. "So am I," he replied. Although she had recently worked in India on the T.V. miniseries The Jewel in the Crown, she said, "I thought, 'Oh dear, I really don’t want to do it', but it's very difficult to turn down a Lean film."

Satyajit Ray, who had hoped to direct his adaptation of A Passage to India, recommended 38-year-old Bengali actor Victor Banerjee for the role of Dr Aziz. The character required a combination of foolishness, bravery, honour and anger. After some hesitation, Lean cast Banerjee, but the director had to overcome the restrictions of British equity to employ an Indian actor. Lean got his way, and the casting made headlines in India. "It was a matter of national pride that an Indian was cast instead of an Asian from England," observed Banerjee.

Peter O'Toole was Lean's first choice to play Fielding. The role eventually went to James Fox. Despite having quarrelled with Lean in the 1960s about a proposed film about Gandhi that ultimately was scrapped, Alec Guinness agreed to portray Professor Godbole. The relationship between the two men deteriorated during filming, and when Guinness learned that much of his performance was left on the cutting room floor due to time constraints, he saw it as a personal affront. Guinness would not speak to Lean for years afterwards, only patching things up in the last years of Lean's life.[8] Nigel Hawthorne was cast as Turton but fell ill and was replaced on-set by Richard Wilson.


The Marabar Caves are based on the Barabar Caves, some 35 km north of Gaya, in Bihar. Lean visited the caves during pre-production, and found them flat and unattractive; concerns about bandits were also prevalent. Instead he used the hills of Savandurga and Ramadevarabetta some tens of kilometers from Bangalore, where much of the principal film took place; small cave entrances were carved out by the production company.[9] Other scenes were filmed in Ramanagaram (Karnataka) and Udhagamandalam (Tamil Nadu) and in Srinagar (Jammu and Kashmir), with some interiors being shot at Shepperton Studios in Surrey and in Bangalore Palace.

Filming Dates

November 1983 - June 1984

Critical reception

Lean's final film became a critics' favourite in 1984, opening to tremendous praise worldwide. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Lean's film "his best work since The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia and perhaps his most humane and moving film since Brief Encounter. Though vast in physical scale and set against a tumultuous Indian background, it is also intimate, funny and moving in the manner of a film maker completely in control of his material . . . Though [Lean] has made A Passage to India both less mysterious and more cryptic than the book, the film remains a wonderfully provocative tale, full of vivid characters, all played to near perfection."[10]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times observed, "Forster's novel is one of the literary landmarks of this century, and now David Lean has made it into one of the greatest screen adaptations I have ever seen . . . [He] is a meticulous craftsman, famous for going to any length to make every shot look just the way he thinks it should. His actors here are encouraged to give sound, thoughtful, unflashy performances . . . and his screenplay is a model of clarity."[11]

Variety called the film "impeccably faithful, beautifully played and occasionally languorous" and added, "Lean has succeeded to a great degree in the tricky task of capturing Forster's finely edged tone of rational bemusement and irony."[12]

Time Out London thought the film was "a curiously modest affair, abandoning the tub-thumping epic style of Lean's late years. While adhering to perhaps 80 per cent of the book's incident, Lean veers very wide of the mark over E.M. Forster's hatred of the British presence in India, and comes down much more heavily on the side of the British. But he has assembled his strongest cast in years . . . And once again Lean indulges his taste for scenery, demonstrating an ability with sheer scale which has virtually eluded British cinema throughout its history. Not for literary purists, but if you like your entertainment well tailored, then feel the quality and the width."[13]

Channel 4 said, "Lean was always preoccupied with landscapes and obsessed with the perfect shot – but here his canvas is way smaller than in Lawrence of Arabia, for instance . . . Still, while the storytelling is rather toothless, A Passage to India is certainly well worth watching for fans of the director's epic style."[14]

Awards and honors

Academy Awards[15]



Golden Globes






Other awards

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home video

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the first DVD on 20 March 2001. It was in anamorphic widescreen format with audio tracks and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Bonus features included Reflections of David Lean, an interview with the screenwriter/director, cast biographies, and production notes.

On 9 September 2003, Columbia Pictures released the box set The David Lean Collection, which included Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Passage to India.

On 15 April 2008, Sony released A Passage To India (2-Disc Collector's Edition). In addition to Reflections of David Lean from the 2001 release, bonus features included commentary with producer Richard B. Goodwin; E.M. Forster: A Profile of an Author, covering some of the main themes of the original book; An Epic Takes Shape, in which cast and crew members discuss the evolution of the film; An Indian Affair, detailing the primary production period; Only Connect: A Vision of India, detailing the final days of shooting at Shepperton Studios and the post-production period; Casting a Classic, in which casting director Priscilla John discusses the challenges of bringing characters from the book to life; and David Lean: Shooting with the Master, a profile of the director. On 15 April 2008, Sony released a Blu-ray HD Collector's Edition. With a restored print and new digital mastering.

See also


  1. Alexander Walker, Icons in the Fire: The Rise and Fall of Practically Everyone in the British Film Industry 1984–2000, Orion Books (2005), p.35
  2. BoxOfficeMojo.com
  3. Phillips, Beyond The Epic , p.405
  4. Phillips, Beyond The Epic , p.406
  5. Phillips, Beyond The Epic , p.403
  6. Remembering E.M Forster
  7. 1 2 3 Phillips, Beyond The Epic , p.407
  8. Read, Piers Paul, Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography.
  9. Mapability.com
  10. New York Times review
  11. Chicago Sun-Times review
  12. Variety review
  13. Time Out London review
  14. Channel 4 review
  15. "The 57th Academy Awards (1985) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 13 October 2011.
  16. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.

External links

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