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In Inner Space: David Lean's Indian Investigations

Exploring David Lean's "A Passage to India".
Adela Quested (Judy Davis) finishes A Passage to India in the same manner she started the movie: her face is deformed by a window full of drops of rain. In both cases, she is looking at something more or less out of frame, blurred or uncertain, imaginary or physical. The placement of the camera, in the beginning and in the end, is at a different location. When the film starts, we are inside of a traveling agency and Adela is walking past the panoramic window. She stops for a second and stares at a large-sized model of a ship. We can’t see the ship entirely: just some chimneys, masts and ropes. We only know this is a ship because the previous shot—the first shot of the picture, actually—showed us this model.
In the end of the movie, Adela is reading a letter concerning events that we have seen. She came from England to India, things happened and now she is traumatized. But then comes this letter—hopeful, optimistic, redeeming. Her spirit is re-energized. She raises and comes to the window. She looks to the horizon (behind us, outside the frame), a small smile appears and she turns her back and steps back to the room. We can’t see the room: everything behind her is black.
Is this black the void of oblivion? I don’t think so, but one could guess that it is. But in an ending so optimistic and hopeful, why would a character—such a brave one—step into the black of death? Why would someone like Adela Quested, who overcame the prejudices that surrounded her and her own fears about herself and about reality, just go and fade away? No lessons learned? This just can’t be.
It’s interesting to note that both in the beginning and in the end, rain is pouring in old England. Both times when we face her, the glass is splashed with raindrops and her face is deformed. In the final shot of the film, this effect is reinforced: the rain is even stronger and the drops of water run down the window glass; facing Adela, she seems to melt before our eyes—like Peter Gabriel in the cover of his third solo album, nicknamed Melt.
It has been said that after The Bridge on the River Kwai, the films of David Lean adopted an aggressive posture against British society and codes of behavior. One can get this impression especially watching Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter. Both films feature English characters in very unflattering positions. While being a visionary and a dreamer, T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is also someone very uncomfortable under his own skin, a man trying to create a world where he can govern without the intrusion of social codes that he cannot oblige and understand. A world where he can give orders and place himself wherever he may find it’s best. The beauty of the desert vastness is not only a plastic one. Lean choose to frame wide shots—the dunes, the sun coming from behind the horizon—because this is a world which man did not conquer yet: anyone who reigns here is a man with superpowers, who beat the harshness of this land and overcame himself. That’s why the Fathers of the Desert choose to preach the teachings of God there. Ryan’s Daughter, though taking place in Ireland, has an English character that triggers a series of disgraces in a small village and is harassed by its inhabitants. Like Lawrence, Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) is trespassing a land that is not his and is not welcoming to foreigners. Like Lawrence of Arabia, these are times of war, and the beauty things in the heart of man are being destroyed by violence. Messrs. Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby, in their ironic reviews of Ryan’s Daughter, couldn’t see that the ravishing beauty that lingers so petulantly in the screen is not a fetish for Lean: it is a plea for man to preserve it. But in the picture (and in Doctor Zhivago) man did not. So the people of the little village cut the hair of Ryan’s daughter.
The thing is that in David Lean’s films it is always wartime. And his severe judgment is not exclusively about British society. Though, of course, A Passage to India makes a call about the ending of the British Empire and about, again, being a foreigner in a hostile land (this time we have a whole pack of intruders), Lean is making assertions about the human race as a whole. His films are about the clash of two souls and this clash will reverberate into a physical conflict. There will be a fight, and it may be fought with prohibited embraces (Brief Encounter), tears (Summertime) or, if necessary, with guns (Zhivago). If we stop to think about what a David Lean picture is, we may arrive to the conclusion that his major interest is the superposition of the human individual against an overwhelming backdrop. This superposition triggers something deep in the soul of his characters, and then they have to take an action. They have to fight. David Lean is the fight. David Lean is the quest. David Lean is action. I think this is why his favorite image is the diminished man against the wide nature. Not that this man is meaningless against nature, but that nature, as a part of God’s creation, is calling him to be something meaningful.
The man who needs to take an action is a favorite theme of many directors. John Ford was action, too. But this is a different kind of action. In Ford’s movies, we have a kind of psyche that resembles the theories of Dr. Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl, a Jewish psychoanalyst who survived Theresienstadt, helped his patients to cure their neurosis through noogenic therapy. As Olavo de Carvalho asserts, “[through the therapy] the meaning of life is found by means of a deep investigation in which the patient, aided by his therapist, searches for an answer to the following question: What is there for me to do, and no one can do it except for me?”1
In John Ford’s films, the man already knows the answer, and he is doomed to do it—nobody will do it except for him. This kind of action (very American) is closer to Clint Eastwood, who is Ford’s direct heir, than to Lean. Lean’s line of action is more in the lines of Douglas Sirk: their characters don’t know what is there for them to do. Both men were European, and their films, even if Sirk worked in America, were analogous to the European condition. The loss of power, the individual facing the hypocritical conventions. What strikes the most in this facing of convention is not that convention is the problem itself—both filmmakers knew that conventions are elements created by mankind to bind a community together and harmonize this community to a common code of morality to which no one is greater. But codes are and should passable for re-readings and reinterpretations: a set of moral rules is always generic and, if taken only by face value, then disgrace is just a corner away. In order to follow a moral code one must know very well about himself and how this moral code (or a snippet of a greater code) plays in the context of his environment. And what illustration of this moral misunderstanding is better than Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows? Does Jane Wyman trespass a moral code by falling in love with Rock Hudson or is it her fundamentalist community (i.e. people who take things at face value) that knows nothing about love and, worse, about themselves?
To Douglas Sirk and David Lean, troubles are born in the incomprehension and laziness of the human race about itself, about having self-conscience and self-knowledge and thus living in peace—this is how they escape from being bathed in the waters of ideology. Well, Sirk, like Dr. Frankl, knew very well the dangers of ideology. But the difference between the villains and the heroes is that the former don’t know what is there for them to do and they continue to be that way, whereas the latter at least search for something to do.
If it is representative of the European condition a continuing loss of power, of this confused quest for identity, what would be more logical to David Lean than to place his last film in such an exotic land, boiling with revolt, as India? (Not that David Lean did know that his would be his swan song; although he knew that this possibility was high, as the last spoken line shows us.) And as we know from films such as Jean Renoir’s The River and the Archers’ Black Narcissus, India holds a strong spell in the British imaginary. In these films, the characters get to know themselves in a strong, violent manner—very different from, say, what the contemplative bucolic English countryside evokes in our conscience, although these prosaic locations were bathed in blood in the times of the kings William and Harold.
This fact (the violence of the self-knowledge) is remembered constantly in A Passage to India, and it is the reason this story exists. As Prof. Godbole (Alec Guinness) questions, why did Adela come to India—to meet his husband-to-be, to go to the Marabar Caves or to meet Mr. Fielding? Godbole’s questionings, even if they sound obvious and refer directly to the plot of the movie, are very important and are a guide for the comprehension of this picture.
Much of A Passage to India happens off-screen, in a place a camera can’t reach: the imagination of the characters. Their actions and even their movements made by the story are impalpable, intangible, like a floating spirit in the air. This spirit has an “avenging angel” quality to it; I don’t think that Lean went to build the mystical aspect of his film by using Hindu culture as a motif to the downslide of Adela’s mind: self-knowledge is an important feature of Christian teaching. (It is unimportant if the director was or wasn’t a believer: his Quaker upbringing splashes all over his work, and every great art is a please for God.)
The country, and its space, its vistas, and its mountains are only the battlefield between the First Reality and the Second Reality. (In general terms: the artificial and deceiving structure that some people build to escape facing the hardships that the world presents us when we go astray from truth.)2 Often, the Second Reality can be rearranged to implement elements from the First Reality, transform them (i.e. to lie) and go on living accommodated in the artificial world without caring about how these lies, how this veil of dishonesty makes people around them suffer. But the drama of this film is that the First Reality wins, and the explosion of truth will affect everyone. So this isn’t a matter of the film about a strange land where a powerful entity from the Hindu cosmology will transform the cooled minds of the English people; what happens is that we are in a unknown place that, for its mysterious structure, will directly affect the cognitive registers of these people, blowing up any potential possibility of escaping.
So the two leading female characters, Adela and Mrs. Moore, represent the two realities. The latter, older, wiser, knows that they are in a land that still is closely connected to spiritual matters and has not given up its spiritual inheritance to mundane and materialistically worries. Mrs. Moore, twice a widow, has seen much, lived much and knows that the end is near. So it is better to live the rest of her days asking if she lives in a godless universe, staring at the moon shining in the Ganges and visiting mosques in ruins rather than minding about the frivolities of an English country club full of prejudiced people. Adela, however, starts the film on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and Judy Davis’ maniac eyes can’t lie (and they never lie: it is incredible how this woman’s eyes contain a sea of sorrow and madness; just check her performance in Eastwood’s Absolute Power). She knows she’s living a lie; she knows—but won’t admit—she doesn’t love Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), her bridegroom. If the sexual images in the old temple upsets her, it has nothing to do with “restrained sexuality,” a typical interpretation of fetishist critics that bring Freudian analysis to a cereal box, critics with low reading power and with automatic answers (a sword?—phallus! A lamppost?—phallus! A bedpost?—phallus, always, according to David Bordwell); if Adela is upset with these images it’s only because they reinforce the certainty she is miles from somewhere she would ignore the facts concerning about her marriage and could go on faking it, marrying someone she doesn’t really loves, until her death. Miles away from the Second Reality.
Ruins, sacred temples, entrancing landscapes… These words evoke a beautiful imagery, a banquet for the eyes. And what filmmaker bought us images more overwhelming than David Lean? From the desert of Lawrence of Arabia through the Venetian channels from Summertime and the expressiveness of the shadows from the opening of Hobson’s Choice, Lean will be forever remembered as a great image-maker. And to the despair of his detractors (such as Pauline Kael), there is a foundation that holds his quest for the perfect framing.
What connects Lawrence and A Passage to India is the notion of space. In the Arabian picture, Peter O’Toole was trapped in this deadly sandy world, trying to overcome his limitations and faults, although in the process he becomes flawed and flawed. It is not disclosed, but there is a barrier that blocks his way out from the desert, and these barriers are unsurmountable. The setting of the picture is a limited one, and the movements and thoughts of the characters, especially Lawrence’s, must be adjusted to this world. The big vistas of the wide shots are the testimonial that these sands and these hot winds will go on forever, and there isn’t much more to it.
But the world from India is not like that; the world from India is one that is multicolored and with many shades and layers. Roughly, I think about these two aspects that are important in the construction of the visual world of the film:
(a) The architecture
One of the first shots set in India is a low angle shot of a building (an arch, a tower). The building seems to be leaning hauntingly towards us, but rose petals falling in our direction give a welcoming nature to the audience. This dichotomy—we seem to be trespassing a prohibited location, but we are nevertheless welcomed—is reinforced during the whole movie. There is a specie of “Little England” in Chandrapore, a small neighborhood built in late Victorian style. This place is a well of arrogance, and it sets the prejudiced English people as far as they possibly can be from brotherly and mutual respect, as do the road signs with names such as Trafalgar Road, Wellington Road and Kitchener Avenue. Finally, the court where Dr. Aziz’s (Victor Benerjee) judgment occurs has skylights in the roof, clearly a sign that heaven is witnessing the injustice that is being made there. When things are over and are rectified, of course there are cries of joy that clean the dirt from the glass in the ceiling. (Little close up shots are as important in the films of David Lean’s as the wide shots, see the first sexual intercourse of Rosy and Doryan in Ryan’s Daughter or the frosted glass melting with the candle in Doctor Zhivago.) As previously said, the sexual sights of men and women in the ruined temple kick the brain of Adela Quested, and it is in a temple equally in ruins (a mosque) that Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz for the first time.
Interesting—and again breaking a misunderstanding about his approach about framing and editing—, while trained as an editor, Lean is not a filmmaker we could rate as an editor-director, nor do his films use a lot of coverage. His resources are actually quite conservative and simplistic, and when filming dialogue scenes he prefers invisibility and intimacy. I wouldn’t call it old-fashioned, but I would highlight it as evidence of his profound knowledge about the psychology of his characters. He has a preference for fluid tracking shots and static camera (much in the manner of Manoel de Oliveira, a director that moved his camera only to highlight something extremely important). He only breaks this self-imposed rule once, and when he does it, he does it for good: the only time in his life he used a hand-held camera was in this A Passage to India3 when Adela’s mind finally cracks. Of course, using a shaky camera to illustrate mental instability is a run-of-the-mill procedure now, but here we talking about an extremely disciplined filmmaker, so disciplined that the cameraman operating the hand-held camera doesn’t move more than a few steps in the set, so the image doesn’t tremble. It’s like the pressure on Adela is so powerful that even his static camera can’t resist to it, as the camera didn’t resist and started to spin around Henry Fonda’s head when he is locked up in The Wrong Man4.
(b) Nature
Mountains, rivers, valleys, swards and rocks are important parts of A Passage to India’s general landscape. It was seeing Chandrapore so far away, says Adela during Aziz’s trial, so tiny against the infinite horizon, she discovered she didn’t love Ronny. But not only big mountains and deep valleys are important in Lean’s imagery. The sight of clouds caressing the sky, gently and slowing passing over our heads is also employed. David Lean, like John Ford, framed the horizon either in the upper half or in the lower half of the screen. Generally, to give the sensation of boredom, the infinite or of passing of time, the horizon will be framed in the lower half of the screen. When in meditation, a more extreme measure will be taken and then the director shoots the moon (or the sun), as it is when Mrs. Moore is digressing about mortality. Reflexes are equally important: see, for example, the clouds reflected in the water when Fielding is trying to make amends with Aziz, repeating the cycle of time and journey.
There are many more aspects, such as clothing (or the lacking of it: Aziz meets Fielding for the first time when the latter is taking a shower). The construction of the material world of A Passage to India is only a springboard to the formulation of the meanings these material objects have in the world of idea, and then they assume their forms—either haunting or welcoming. But more importantly, in the transmission of the Idea they have about India and the things that the country has, something is missing, something is deranged. Maybe the avenging angel that makes the characters meet themselves lives in the channel between the physical world and the imaginary world. He is the guardian that tries to keep us from lying to ourselves. In the flux between reality and conscience lies confusion.
In the end, when Adela is reading that redeeming letter, when peace is reigning again, Adela uses her imagination once more. This time to see things correctly. Alone, reading what that Indian fellow Aziz has to say, listening to him tearfully, Adela imagines how he and Fielding may have departed. David Lean enter in this flux of imagination and films the departing of the two man almost if it were a fairy-tale. Because reality may be bitter, but there are cracks in it from where the light of kindness, brotherly love and the quest for truth enter and saves us from the black void. If only these cracks were bigger.

1. Olavo de Carvalho, “A mensagem de Viktor Frankl,” in O Mínimo Que Você Precisa Saber para Não Ser um Idiota [The Minimum That You Should Know In Order to Avoid Being an Idiot], ed. Felipe Moura Brasil, 16th ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2015), 51, (Our translation)
2. The concepts of First and Second Reality are explained in detail in Eric Voegelin, “The Eclipse of Reality,” in “What Is History?” and Other Late Unpublished Writings, ed. Thomas A. Hollweck and Paul Caringella, vol. 28, The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 111–62.
3. The first time he used a hand-held camera in a theatrical picture was in A Passage to India (evidently I’m discounting the documentary Lost and Found: The Story of an Anchor, which was made for TV), but it wasn’t the first time he considered using one. In the shooting screenplay of Doctor Zhivago (dated September 1964), page 110, scene 599, it is written: “MEDIUM TRACKING SHOT (Hand-held) PASHA’S POV: Black earth springing up out of the whiteness just ahead of him. The CAMERA lurches over.” As I recall of the movie, Lean didn’t shoot it that way. (See
4. May I remind the reader that Alfred Hitchcock was hurt by François Truffaut's remark that it was a mistake to include that particular shot in The Wrong Man. According to Truffaut, “that's an antirealistic effect. I feel it would have been a good deal more convincing if you had simply shown Henry Fonda sitting on a stool in the cell,” to which Hitchcock answers, “Maybe so, but wouldn’t it be rather dull?” The temperature of the conversation quickly escalates, especially after Truffaut’s suggestion that the picture should be treated like a newsreel reportage (see François Truffaut, Hitchcock, rev. ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 240, 242). Well, A Passage to India was made by a filmmaker who is much more restrained than Hitchcock, but it didn’t stop him to make a moment in which an objective shot is subject to the same strength that the individual who is being filmed is suffering. The main (and I think this is the only) difference between The Wrong Man and India is that the pain of the character is transferred in a much stronger and expressive manner in Hitchcock’s film. True, The Wrong Man is based in real facts, but Lean’s film is treated in an equally realistic manner, and the fact that he transformed an objective shot into a subjective one didn’t at all hurt the context of the movie. In fact, The Wrong Man is way more fantastic (that is, meta-realistic) than India. I should add, also, that this discreet objectivity that Mr. Truffaut asks rarely exists in cinema, except in very rare cases—the only example I can remember of right now would be the “encyclopedia films” of Roberto Rossellini, but this is an extreme example of an extreme filmmaker, though I think that the solemnity of films like Agostino d’Ippona or The Rise of Louis XIV represent a kind of subjectivity which are part of the nature of these characters, and even then sometimes this expedient doesn't work, as Blaise Pascal proves.

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