Today we’re discussing A Passage to India the film directed by David Lean in relation to the Imaginative Landscape. If this isn’t one of your texts, or you haven’t watched our video on Imaginative Landscape yet – stop! – go watch that first and come back.
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Alright- on to the film.
This film adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel by the same name engages extensively with the ideas of the Imaginative Landscape, particularly that of landscape holding different meaning for different people. Set during the British Raj, the film portrays the tensions inherent in Colonial India and the changes taking place within that environment. At its heart, A Passage to India depicts the powerful effect landscapes can have on an individual and the subjective nature of these places.
While you can’t mimic the style of the film for your context writing, you should still be aware of the cinematic techniques to deepen your analysis. Some key techniques to look for and analyse include:
From Mrs Moore and Miss Quested’s first arrival in India, it is clear that this is a landscape in flux. Not only has the physical landscape been changed by British intervention, but the culture and perspectives towards place have been altered as well. This can often be seen in the dialogue of the colonists: “East is East… it’s a question of culture.” Callendar says ominously to Fielding: “one cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds – at least in this country.” But the setting itself reflects the fundamentally patriarchal and condescending colonial attitudes of the British.
This can be seen in the transportation of British cultural symbols and practices to India. The introduction of these ideas can be seen in the frequent jump cuts between the vibrancy and noise of India against overwhelmingly British displays such as polo and the club musical. Juxtapositions, such as that of a British flag flapping on the hood of a car against an Indian marketplace represent the unsuccessful merging of these two cultures. Further, the attempts at domination by the British can be seen in the subtleties of the landscape; such as the train station being called Victoria Station and the statue of Queen Victoria outside of the court house.
These physical changes have evoked corresponding changes in the people who inhabit India. Many Indians are sick of British rule and itching for a reclamation of the landscape. The scenes outside the courtroom represent a society on the brink of massive social change.
This can also be seen in Adela’s changing attitudes towards her marriage corresponding with her altered surroundings. While at the polo, a quintessentially British setting with its neatly mowed lawns and styled horses, Adela calls off the wedding calmly and without real emotion. The very next day though, after wandering into remote Indian countryside and being confronted by monkeys in a temple she returns home wide-eyed and fearful. She grips on to Ronny, her symbol of the steady and familiar Britain, and asks for the wedding to be reinstated. Her decisions are linked with the environments she inhabits and experiences that she has there.
In a different way, the relationship that individuals have with a landscape can shift over time or as the result of new experiences there. This can be seen in the changing responses each of the women display towards the caves. Adela’s descent from wonderment to panic plays out on her face as her name echoes around her. Equally, the conversation between Aziz and Fielding following the trial demonstrates how profoundly the trial has altered their relationship with the place they each once called home. Fielding plans to return to England while Aziz can’t bare to live under British rule any longer, and plans to move to an Indian controlled State. The place they once loved has been irrevocably tainted by their experience there.
The inherent subjectivity of landscape is explored in this film through different responses to India. Because the film primarily follows Miss Quested’s journey, this is depicted through contrasting responses from colonists.
When the women first arrive, Miss Quested is curious about the bright and vibrant market they are making their way through. Ronny responds to her curiosity, “I’m sorry…we’ll soon be out of this,” as if there is a reason to be ashamed of the display. Indeed, they are soon out of it as the film jump cuts to a quiet and well-groomed English settlement. Much to most people’s dismay, Miss Quested and Mrs Moore continue to express a desire to see India outside of the constraints of the club. Miss Quested says “I’m longing to see something of the real India.” For Ronny and the other members of the club, there is nothing worth seeing outside of the India they have created; a mini-England on fresh soil. But for the newcomers, the excitement is in seeing a land different than the one they came from.
The operation of subjective interpretation is explored through camerawork in the courthouse scene. As Miss Quested approaches the witness stand for her testimony, the camera tracks what she sees. She focusses in on the staring faces of a few around her, but when confronted with the eyes of Aziz, she looks to his scuffed shoes instead. The next thing she glimpses is the witness box, which looms ominously in front of her. A setting that may seem entirely ordinary to the lawyers, to the judge and to her fiancée are made terrifying by her particular perspective.
This notion weaves in the experience of landscapes as either positive or negative dependent on the person who experiences them. Perhaps landscapes can be harsh or comfortable for those who encounter them, but they are not inherently good or bad on that alone. It takes an individual experiencing and interpreting that place before these qualitative conditions are imposed on place. India is simultaneously familiar and foreign, comforting and threatening, depending on which character is experiencing it. Mrs Moore’s consideration of this idea is summed up in her reaction to the Ganges: “what a terrible river… what a wonderful river.”
Significantly, these responses to landscape are not static, but move and change as the individual grows, matures and has fresh experiences there. This is reflected in the sentiments of Aziz after being knocked off his bicycle that new Englishmen to India quickly change to be like their more established counterparts. In the same way, the negative experience in the Marabar Caves shifts Mrs Moore’s inquisitive response to India to one so haunting that she decides to flee.
In many ways, this film suggests that the connection between humans and landscape, and the power of landscape itself is beyond explanation or understanding. The Marabar Caves are suggested to be a highly enigmatic and spiritual place, and they do not disappoint. In fact, the impact of the caves on those present is apparent in their physical responses to being there. Moreover, this connection stays with those who experience it; Mrs Moore transforms the boom of the ship motor to the echo within the caves and Miss Quested reports having an echo in her head right up until the conclusion of the trial. Their effect on these characters is profound.
This profundity is something that Mrs Moore suggests goes beyond rational understanding. She tells her son that the caves are “spiritual” in a way that cannot be understood by the court, and in fact they are not: Mr McBryde describes them as “inaccessible, barren place…the caves themselves are dark, featureless and without interest except for a strange echo.” The connection between that place and Miss Quested goes on unexplained by such a narrow minded and pragmatic understanding of the world.
Before Miss Quested ever visits the Marabar Caves, she has generated an imagined idea of them in her mind. At the very opening of the film, she reacts to the site of a picture of the Caves on the wall of the cruise liner company in England. The ship manager tells her a little of the Caves and reveals a little of his own imagined landscapes in the process: “I envy you- new horizons.” This intrigue about the Caves continues after her arrival in India. She is drawn to them while standing on her porch back in Chandrapore.
In a similar way, the temple featuring statues in sexual positions is shown to play in Miss Quested’s mind as a manifestation of her burgeoning sexuality. She visits the landscape physically only once that the audience sees, but her connection to it emotionally or mentally extends far beyond that.
Miss Quested is not the only character to experience flashes of landscape imaginings while in India. Mrs Moore is depicted as moving away from her physical situation through an imagined landscape more than once. While listening to an uncomfortable rendition of God Save the King she drifts away from the club to an imagining of a crocodile feeding under the moonlight on the Ganges. This is not an event she has seen, but one that has been described to her by Dr Aziz and has played on her mind since their meeting. She is thinking of the India she wishes to come to know, not the one she is experiencing presently.
Aziz voices his own imaginative landscape to Miss Quested on their way to the Marabar Caves. Atop an elephant, he says to her: “I feel as if I am travelling into my past and I am a great Mogul Emperor.” He has travelled beyond the landscapes he has known in his life to those he has imagined from stories of his ancestors.
The landscape within A Passage to India is often made to mirror the experiences of characters. This form of personification, also known as pathetic fallacy, can be seen in the behaviour of the weather at various points in the film. Winds often correlate with significant events, adding an element of intrigue or a sense that something is happening. Notably, while Dr Aziz plays close attention to this activity in the mosque, Ronny dismisses the same strong breeze as insignificant. Like wind, rain brakes through at specific points in characters’ lives as well, mimicking their mood or a moment of great change.
The strong contrasts between India and British-India also play themselves out in a way that gives personality to each landscape. For example, when Miss Quested chooses to ride off the beaten track towards the temple, she is hidden from view by long grass. This grass represents the unknown; an unknown she is keen to explore in her search for the “real India” but one that many of her British counterparts fear.
This is just a bit of a taste of Imaginative Landscape within A Passage to India but hopefully it gives you some good talking points for your next context piece. Make sure to check out the video on Imaginative Landscape and how to write different context pieces!
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