Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Passage to India


The fax machine burst into life this morning while I was eating my ten-grain granola with fireweed honey and all natural yogurt (breakfast of movie stars). It was Troma studios with yet another rewrite of Toxy Foxy , the new musical sequel to The Little Foxes . This time, Regina Giddens seems to have become a mad psycho killer, stalking the Toxic Avenger through a rendering plant with a meat hook. I have come to the conclusion that Troma has no idea as to what sort of film they wish to make. I have therefore told Joseph, my manger, to please remove my name from consideration and look around for another project upon which Norman and I can bestow our thespian and terpsichorean talents.

On a brighter note, plans for my new cable TV infomercial, Virtually Vicki are almost complete. The infomercial will tape this next week under the direction of Michael Bay. I have worked out several delectable musical interludes between the product pitches. A rousing tap number to Oh You Beautiful Doll to introduce the Mrs. Norman Maine collectable fashion dolls. A torch song to highlight the makeup line to the tune of Tangerine which begins 'Lesterene - makes a lady gay! With a hundred shades as her beauty fades away'. A modern ballet to Copeland's Appalachian Spring for the House O'Hair Wigs. And, of course, my famous rendition of Meow Meow to the tune of Memory for all that cat food. I also hope to persuade some of my old Hollywood friends to make special guest appearances, modeling GlamourPuss gowns and VickiWear so that concerned women of America can see how indescribable sateen sheen rayon can make them look.

Isaac Mizrahi, hard at work on a new look for the Sink For Your Supper concert tour, was thinking of going Asian - a sort of The Last Emperor meets The Jewel in the Crown . I am therefore looking for inspiration for a new Sari-Wong number to highlight his visual designs. The subcontinent being on my mind, I popped David Lean's A Passage to India into the home theater for a quick look. I hadn't seen it for some years. David and I had had talks about my playing Adela Quested for him but he balked at my suggestions for a major dance routine during the courtroom scenes so we soon parted ways.

A Passage to India is an adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel of the intricate race relations and bad behavior of the British Raj in India during the 1920s. It centers on Miss Adela Quested (Judy Davis), who is engaged to marry Ronny Healsop (Nigel Havers). Ronny, like many other middle class Brits of the day, went off to India to seek fame and fortune in the colonies. His mother, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) and Adela book the titular passage to India to go join him for an extended visit. Ronny, under the influence of the provincial pompous asses who make up the majority of the Raj, has turned into a righteous prig. Adela and Mrs. Moore, interested in learning something more of the true India, turn instead to Richard Fielding (James Fox), a true admirer of Indian culture and to Fielding’s friends, Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness), a Hindu teacher and a local Indian doctor, Dr. Aziz (Victor Bannerjee), despised by the British for his skin color despite his British education and obvious intellectual superiority. 

Dr. Aziz feels obligated to invite the ladies on an expedition to the famous Marabar caves, an object of interest to Adela since her time in England. One hot day, they set out. Something, it is deliberately unclear what, happens between the confused and emotionally charged Adela and Dr. Aziz and she accuses him of attempted rape. This polarizes the British versus the natives and the Indian doctor has the impossible task of defending himself against the accusation in the British court system, something akin to the trial situation in To Kill a Mockingbird . How it resolves reveals the prejudices and rot at the heart of the British rule of India.

David Lean, one of the most visual of directors, gives us sweeping visions of India. The expedition to the caves, in particular, with the crowd of people and a bejeweled elephant is magnificent. Unfortunately, the film was not shot in the anamorphic 2.35 wide screen process, but rather the more standard 1.85 so the vistas feel a little curtailed, and not as powerful as in his Lawrence of Arabia or Dr. Zhivago . His use of bright color to bring the exotic of India to us, however, nearly makes up for the smaller dimensions. He also remains a master of people in landscape and a great dissector of the British character. Many of his best films involve the British as fish out of water and how they react to the strange and unknown.

Maurice Jarre, Lean's usual composer, let him down a bit on this one. His main themes have some traditional Indian instrumentation, but the lush Western sounding orchestra, at times, overpowers the visual images and should have been toned down. Fortunately, it's not quite as annoying as his music for Ryan’s Daughter . Jarre won an Oscar but it's not his best work. It’s just a bit jarring given the perfection and grace of many of the visual images.

The performances, across the board, are excellent (Ashcroft won an Oscar for best supporting actress). Judy Davis, of the pinched face and pale skin, handles Adela's difficult transitions with grace. Much of her performance must come from the interior, without benefit of dialog and, as one of our more gifted actresses; she's up to the challenge. Her face and reactions in a wordless scene where she encounters erotic Indian sculpture and monkeys tell us much more about the character's internal conflicts than any amount of words. Ashcroft is ethereal grace, especially in her night scene where she first meets the gentle doctor. The supporting cast includes gifted performers of Indian heritage. Besides Bannerjee, Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey and Roshan Seth are also on hand, each adding depth and humanity. Nigel Havers simply has to be a heel and a cad; he has little difficulty with it. The weakest link is Sir Alec Guinness as the Hindu mystic. You are always aware of watching another of his chameleon performances, rather than a true Indian. The part should have been cast with an Indian actor.

While not in the same class with Lawrence of Arabia A Passage to India is a fine example of film craft melding a strong story with sterling production values and a genius eye behind the camera. It's more colorful than the Merchant-Ivory Forester adaptations done in the 80s ( A Room With A View Maurice Howard’s End ) and is a little less respectful towards the British middle classes, keeping a bit more of Forester's bite. It's a worthwhile addition to a film library.

Painted elephant. Missing collar stud. Crocodiles in the moonlight. Gratuitous hanging off of train. Tonga napping. Garden party bad manners. Tea for Two playing. Gratuitous Himalayan vistas. Chattering monkeys. Sexually obsessed spinster.

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