Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Further Comment on "A Passage to India"


Dirk’s essay on Passage to India made me want to read the book and watch the movie again, for which I’m grateful. I intended this to be a “comment” on Dirk’s review but it got too long. As I watched the movie immediately after reading the novel, I’m drawn to make comparisons. The differences come from the requirements of form mainly but also reflect the era.  Dirk points out Adela’s bike ride through the undergrowth to the ruined Hindu sex gods and goddesses, where she’s chased away by a sinister pack of monkeys, which sets up the panic in the caves, as being in the movie but not in the book.  Even though this scene verges on being funny and a cliche, it is forgivable and effective enough as we remember this is a late attempt to capture an earlier sensibility, or to extend it, as the novel leaves more to the imagination. Later in the movie, as the Hindu festival threatens the English decorum, a celebrant in a monkey costume jumps slam on our car’s windshield, another nasty shock, in the movie, and disturbing enough for the western viewer, today.
In the book Adela’s panic in the cave seems partly sexual too,  and yet more profound and mysterious and may be caused by the profound “nothingness” in the caves, what Dirk interestingly suggests about their complete lack of structure, and, Forster seems to say, some hole in the universe ultimately.  The novel exists at higher metaphysical levels than the movie, which makes no attempt to imagine these, happily enough, as the novel drags somewhat when Forster speculates despairingly on the inadequacy of all the religions of India and the West to heal the gap between man and God, between man and man, man and woman, man and the earth, India and England, Hindu and Moslem, and Brahman and peasant. (How would he know exactly?) It all ends with the crash of the English party boat and the Hindus’ sacred arc, scattering all their contents over the waters in a hopeless muddle, a droll metaphor for the Empire.
Judy Davis as Adela is too good looking, even when trying to appear “plain,” to be true to the book, and has an inner glow which even at her most indecisive and confused moments steals forth. Her struggle (during and after the trial) over her truth of what happened in the cave is worth watching on screen, as a piece of acting, while Adela’s in Forster’s novel is at best wretched, a symbol of the Raj itself, stumbling onward. Perhaps that’s its potency in the book. However we know all that, but perhaps we didn’t at the time the novel was written, when the Raj was still firmly in place. Adela in the book seems really barely worth worrying about much, which is unfortunate in a central character, except that she holds Aziz’s fate in her hands. Forster’s Adela is not together, as we would say. Adela courageously admitting her mistake, yet not redeemed in the eyes of the Indians, cut off by the Anglos, has been accidentally “exorcised” by the prosecutor, thinks Fielding. This works realistically and psychologically, is at once a surprise, and is not plot driven, as Dirk points out. But it does not relieve the claustrophobic smallness of what has been and is happening.  And her victim, Aziz, is vain enough to call her a “hag,” his sexual egotism appalled as much as his fear of prison that he should have been accused of attacking a not beautiful woman. I couldn’t help reflecting that above all Adela saves herself-- from a real hell that might have ensued for her sending an innocent man to prison.
Forster’s is a beautifully realized novel about small souls (with a couple of poignant exceptions) in a dreary landscape, English and Indians alike. The Raj was threadbare and bathetic by now; Forster speculates that India run by Indians will be at the level of Guatemala or Belgium. Perhaps he wrote the novel as a sort of antidote to all the pomp and circumstance and mystique of Empire. Beyond some exquisite description of the moon, the mosque, and the river, a beautiful moment, to me, in the book is when Godbole breaks into haunting song, and this can only be alluded to as Forster was incapable as anybody would be to really describe such a thing. In the movie Alec Guiness could not have reproduced that song either, who comes across as a comical figure, not austere.  Instead we are focused on the vegetarian professor eating a banana (which is in the book too). Alec Guiness is always worth the price of admission however. But here (the characterization of Prof. Godbole) the tone of the movie diverges widely from the book also. The movie is about average and occasionally attractive and amusing people, Indian and English alike, in a quaint colonial situation, in the middle of a terrible and somehow inevitable calamity, in a mysterious landscape. The Raj is depicted in a romantic way in the movie. And the misè-en-scene is made charming and interesting not intentionally dull and muddy as in the book.  The characters in the movie are handsomer and more energetic, not for any philosophical reason but purely cinematic ones, probably. The movie is a mainstream entertainment, the book not.
Forster’s sympathies lie with the Indians, although he doesn’t have much faith in them. Perhaps the most stunning symbol of their subjected and effaced beauty is the handsome “punkah wallah,” the untouchable who works the fan by a rope he pulls in the courtroom scene, described by Forster as a man of mute and passed-by beauty of the sort nature throws up in the most unlikely places. Such a moment and minor character in the book reflect Forster’s dissatisfaction with the setup of the Empire, of India itself, and probably the Universe. The movie blows this (and many other such things in the book) off entirely, as such a figure is not needed to contrast anything, since many of the Indians are at least compelling and good-looking actors because it was necessary that an audience buy tickets. An actor who plays a bit character, handsome and vulnerable, one of Aziz’s friends, the lawyer who during Aziz’s trial runs out of the courtroom hysterically in protest, Art Malik, is superb as Hari Kumar in another cinematic (and long) series on the Raj (also based on a novel, The Raj Quartet), and a good one, far more sinister, “Jewel in the Crown,” which I am re-watching now,  a further benefit of having read Dirk’s essay and going on this India kick; Tim Pigott-Smith brilliantly and creepily plays the complexly sadistic colonial police officer Ronald Merrick who tortures Kumar (and unlike Adela, never admits his mistake, thereby ensuring his own personal hell).
A Passage to India takes place when the Empire was still intact, even if cracks were showing, and so it compellingly progresses as a sort of sad comedy of manners, turning tragic. “Jewel in the Crown” is set during World War II when the game was up, the Japanese (with Indian adjuncts) attacking the empire from the east, Gandhi in prison, riots in the streets, the mystique of the Anglo-Indian forces unraveling, and the ugliness and violence keeping things glued together coming out in the open. What was rigid and confining in Passage is rotten to the core and ready to burst in “Jewel.” All of the same social themes resonate but more luridly and explicitly. Unlike Passage, in which Hindu and Moslem are given roughly equal weight (Aziz and Godbole), the Indian POV is mostly Moslem in “Jewel” (pre-9/11 production). At the end comes a bloodbath, in which Hindus slaughter Moslems, and refrain from harming the English. “Jewel,” which I highly recommend, is one of those melodramas which truly depend on a superbly watchable villain (Tim Pigott-Smith as Captain [ultimately Colonel, as the system keeps promoting him to cover up his atrocities] Merrick) whom we definitely love to hate.   I haven’t read The Raj Quartet.  As with Passage, however one compares them, without the novel, no movie.

1 comment:

  1. I've read The Raja Quartet, and recommend it, and seen the movie, but it's been decades so they're not fresh in my mind. I think I generally agree with what you wrote.

    These books, along with novels by other writers such as Conrad and Kipling (who can be very bitter) are partly written as part of the terrific task of the Brits to digest having and losing an empire.

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