Tales of an Indian epic movie which was decades in the making

A scene from David Lean’s A Passage To India, of the fateful expedition to the Marabar caves

BERNARD WINCHESTER on the special event staged at the David Lean Cinema on Saturday, which provided previously unheard secrets of the director’s final film

Saturday’s screening and special Q&A at the arthouse cinema in the Croydon Clocktower was introduced by the Save the David Lean Campaign official as “the greatest event in the cinema’s history”.

And with good reason.

Every year, in homage to the great, Oscar-winning director after whom it is named, the cinema shows one of Lean’s films. This year it was his last, and one of his finest: A Passage To India.

To mark the occasion, the Community Interest Company which now runs the cinema had invited guests associated with the film, and trustees of the David Lean Foundation – which has supported the cinema with grants for improvements – to attend.

The audience included Sir Sydney Samuelson, the founder of BAFTA, and who, although he is 93 years old, promised to come back to the David Lean to introduce some films.

One of the film’s stars, James Fox, and Lean’s assistant director on the movie, Patrick Cadell, participated in the Q&A which followed the film. It was the first time they had been reunited since the movie’s release in 1984.

The film itself, although an epic 2¾ hours long, kept the audience’s rapt attention.

The crux of the plot – was the female protagonist raped? – has powerful resonances with  #MeToo, although the story pans out in a way which the movement’s supporters might not find comfortable.

Actor James Fox (right) with Patrick Cadell at Saturday’s David Lean Cinema screening. Picture by Wally Conquy

Similarly, the racial tensions which lie at the core of the film remain as topical as ever, but again, Lean’s even-handed approach has not won him friends in the more radical camps.

Lean had asked EM Forster, the author of the novel, several times for the film rights, but they were not granted until more than 10 years after Forster’s death in 1970.

Churchill once called Russia’s behaviour “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Forster had worked as the secretary of a maharajah, and his experiences of India led him to see it in a similar way.

A Passage To India embodies this view. Forster told a friend that in the book, “I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplainable muddle – Miss Quested’s experience in the cave.” From the book’s publication in 1924 until Forster died, readers demanded to know what happened there. The invariable, and frustrating, reply was, “I don’t know.”

Lean was determined to capture the essence of the novel, even writing the screenplay, but was then faced by Forster’s own contradictions. In India, Forster saw a land and peoples which were both fascinating and beguiling, and yet alien and threatening. Its light and colours were startlingly bright and vivid, and yet its shadows were dark, impenetrable, and filled with unnamed terrors.

The British seemed confident and all-powerful, and yet at the same time insular, vulnerable and scared. The Indian people too were conflicted, sometimes resenting the “sahibs” and wishing them away, sometimes craving respect and full acceptance.

How, then, was Lean to convey the extraordinary ambivalence of the story?

James Fox, second from left, in a scene from  A Passage To India, Lean’s last film. From left: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee and Croydon’s Peggy Ashcroft

To his credit, he resisted the temptation to oversimplify the telling of this tale.

The task was made harder in some ways by the fact that A Passage To India was not a heavy or ponderous horror story, but actually to a considerable extent light-hearted in tone, with many humorous passages.

The original review of the book in The Times classified it as a “comedy of manners”.

Lean also succeeded in bringing out this dimension of the novel in a thousand subtle ways, through dialogue, direction and the extraordinary talents of his cast, whether seasoned veterans like Alec Guinness, Peggy Ashcroft, Fox, Richard Wilson and Nigel Havers, or comparative newcomers like Victor Banerjee, Judy Davis and Art Malik.

The choice of Guinness to play Professor Narayan Godbole remains the most controversial, and elicited questions in the session after the film on Saturday.

Cadell recalled that comparisons had been made in reviews of the film between Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers’ comic Indian characters, but pointed out that Guinness was one of the most serious actors on the set, and was very unhappy when a good deal of his work was left behind on the cutting room floor. Guinness, after all, had been a mainstay of so many of Lean’s films.

Croydon-born director Sir David Lean on the set of his final film, A Passage To India

Furthermore, all of the other Indian parts were played by Indian actors, the key role of Dr Aziz taken by locally recruited Banerjee. Fox told the David Lean Cinema audience that he had found Guinness “very impressive as the mystical Brahmin”.

The humour in the Godbole part is intentional, arising from the disparity between the lofty detachment of his world view and the passionate involvement of the main characters. In the end, we discover that there can be truth in such cryptic utterances as “We are all part of a pattern we cannot perceive”. This story, like others of Forster’s, has the opportunity travel offers for personal growth as a theme: as Mrs Moore says at the beginning, “India forces one to come face to face with oneself. It can be quite disturbing.”

During the Q&A, we heard about the difficulty of financing the film, which led to Lean, then 76 years old and returning to the business 14 years after burning his fingers with Ryan’s Daughter, needing “running in again” and feeling the pinch of budget constraints after the lavish epics he had made previously.

We heard too, about his “wonderfully crafted” scripts and clever cut-aways, as well as how many scenes were shot in Shepperton. More surprisingly, the big scenes shot in India in the house and 200-acre grounds of an old palace in Bangalore included the dock scene, with a ship recreated by a glass matte painting.

David Lean Foundation trustees Anthony Reeves (left) and Sally Beard visit the cinema’s projection room with Sir Sydney Samuelson. Photograph by Tom Sherrin

Some of the big scenes involved up to 1,000 extras: one, in a market, was problematic due to the fruit disappearing; this was overcome by the ruse of telling everyone that it had all been sprayed with a chemical preservative.

Fox told us that his wife Mary (who was in Saturday’s audience), had been with him in India with their four children. No one was allowed on the set unless in full costume and make-up. He said that Lean was a shy man who never gave line readings, but grunted if he disliked the way something was said. He felt that 90 per cent of a film’s success in acting stemmed from casting.

Cadell interjected that for Lean, actors were an ingredient like any other. Everything had to come together and work: woe betide the actor who didn’t know his lines. Lean and Judy Davis quarrelled because she had her own view of her character, and he had his and did not want to compromise.

Peggy Ashcroft had been reluctant to return to acting at the age of 76 to play Mrs Moore, but in the end she felt that she couldn’t turn down Lean – who pointed out that he was the same age. A member of the audience felt that she achieved everything through her acting, as in silent films: there was little for her to say in the script. Fox found her a very thoughtful, intelligent person. Cadell was coaxed into revealing that she was his godmother, but he denied that this had got him his job.

He also revealed that Sandra Hotz, who played James Fox’s screen wife Stella at the end of the film, was in real life David Lean’s fifth, but not last, wife; the director married again, aged 82, just four months before he died.

The hubbub at the end of conversation and photograph taking delayed the good-natured Clocktower’s security guard for quite some time in locking up. No one, including the enthusiastic guests, wanted this small community cinema’s big day to end.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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