Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

David Lean (director and writer), A Passage to India (1984)

The film A Passage to India (1984) is a historical epic and courtroom drama adapted for the screen by the director David Lean from the novel A Passage to India (1924) by E. M. Forster.   Set in India during the early 1920s, during the height of the British Raj, its main characters become involved in dramas of their own making that are quickly swept up into the vortex of the rise of the Indian independence movement. 

In this context, the film presents an ambivalent attitude towards British imperialism in India: on one hand, appreciating its glamour, glory, pomp and ceremony; while, on the other hand, looking critically at the snobbery and racist attitudes exhibited by the English administrators towards the Indians. 

A de facto segregation is shown to exist, with the British sticking together and the Indians sticking together in an awkward parallel existence.  Racism and simmering resentments eventually boil over and further polarise these communities along existing racial divisions when a young English woman falsely and mistakenly accuses an Indian man of attempting to sexually assault her, a matter that comes to trial, an event that becomes a forum for the promotion of Indian nationalism as well as an opportunity to defend British authority. 

In addition, the film depicts s the Indians as having ambivalent attitudes towards the English.  The main character, Dr Aziz, an Indian Muslim, is shown as extremely keen to impress the English since he is greatly impressed by those in authority, as many other Indian characters are shown to be.  At the same time, he, and other Indians, resent the presence of the English due to their snobbery and racist attitudes. 

The film also presents ambivalent attitudes toward India.  Firstly, it celebrates the grand vistas, exoticism and eroticism of the Far East.  However, the film also attempts to be frank in its depiction of the muddle and mystery of India.  India is a muddle, while the British provide reason and orderliness. 

The de facto segregation also provides a forum where the notion of the possibility of friendship across racial and cultural divides can be explored, noting that the formidable historical and cultural obstacles preventing this are only overcome with great difficulty. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: A Passage to India meaning, A Passage to India themes, A Passage to India analysis, A Passage to India notes