A Passage to India: Cultural Shifts

Last night I watched the 1984 film A Passage to India, directed by David Lean and based on EM Forster’s 1924 novel. I read the book years ago, and whilst I couldn’t remember much of the detail of the plot, I did remember enjoying it very much. Oddly, though, I had never seen the film.

Very roughly, the story is about a young Englishwoman who travels out to British colonial India to get married. It does not take her long to be shocked by the attitude of the British to the indigenous population, and she determinedly sets about meeting ‘ordinary’ Indians. A tourist trip in the company of a local Indian doctor goes badly wrong however, leading to a false accusation of assault by the young woman against the doctor.

The film was well made and directed, with an excellent cast and merits its 7.4 stars from IMDb. But I was very surprised at an early point into the film to realize that one of the Indian characters – Professor Godbole – was being played by Alec Guinness. There was a time of course in cinematic history when this would not have been unusual. But 1984? I really couldn’t believe it.

I suppose 1984 was 27 years ago, although it doesn’t seem like it. But I’m still amazed that even then, it was considered acceptable for a white actor (never mind how great an actor) to take the role of an Indian character.

But what irony: that a film which portrays so uncompromisingly the patronising and racist attitudes of the colonial occupiers should have ‘blacked up’ a white actor for a key role.

How odd no one thought it odd at the time. And how times have changed.

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