In 1928, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) leave England to visit Mrs. Moore's son Ronny (Nigel Havers) in India. He is the civil magistrate of Chandrapore; it is expected that Ronny and Adela will marry and she will stay on in India.
While Ronny and the other English bureaucrats feel quite at ease sequestered in their enclaves, which are off-limits to Indians, Mrs. Moore and Adela feel deprived by their isolation. They want to see the "real" India. One evening Mrs. Moore wanders away from a dreadfully boring play at the British club and goes to see a nearby mosque. Her presence startles Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), a Moslem doctor, who has stopped there to rest after being snubbed by his British superior. The initial surprise turns to instant rapport between them when Mrs. Moore explains that she has respectfully taken off her shoes and that she believes "God is here." Mrs. Moore is like no other Englishwoman Dr. Aziz has ever met.
They see each other again at a tea party hosted by Richard Fielding (James Fox), the English headmaster of a college. He has also invited a Hindu pandit, Professor Godbole (Alec Guinness). Adela and Mrs. Moore have a wonderful time until Ronny appears and rushes them away. He disapproves of their mingling with natives.
During the party, Dr. Aziz had offered to take the ladies on a sightseeing excursion to the Marabar Caves outside Chandrapore. The day becomes a turning point in British-Indian relations. Adela accuses the Muslim of trying to rape her. There are no witnesses, and despite Fielding's protestations, Dr. Aziz is arrested and brought to trial. Mrs. Moore, overcome by exhaustion and the shock of this experience, leaves for England and dies aboard ship. At the trial, the British try to use the case as evidence of Indian inhumanity whereas the natives rally around Dr. Aziz to expose the injustice of English rule. Adela, meanwhile, must learn the truth of Mrs. Moore's observation that "India forces one to come face to face with oneself."
A Passage to India is based on E. M. Forster's 1924 novel in which the author exposed the Anglo-Indian problem as resulting from "an undeveloped heart" on the part of the British. This screen version of the story, which is written and directed by David Lean (Ryan's Daughter), graphically depicts the racist and imperial attitudes of the English in colonial India. Lean has added a scene in which Adela views some Hindu erotic statues, thus altering the emphasis of the story from that of Forster's novel. Still the major contrast between Eastern and Western attitudes remains intact.
In an essay on Forster's novel, Peter Burra describes it as "one of the most aesthetically compact books ever written, whose thought, like music's cannot be fixed, nor its meaning defined." The film convincingly depicts the "strangeness" of India and the cross-cultural misunderstandings that ensue from the incident at the Marabar Caves. The key character in the story is Mrs. Moore (beautifully portrayed by Peggy Ashcroft, who won an Academy Award for this performance). She intuits Dr. Aziz's innocence, criticizes her son's lack of character, respects Adela's flinty individualism, and understands Professor Godbole's vision of destiny. A Passage to India is a literary riddle that every viewer is challenged to decipher in light of his or her own perception of human passion and prejudice.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, A Passage to India is now available on DVD with additional elements including reflections by David Lean, trailers, and information on the actors. The film was also nominated for Best Cinematography, and this version of it clearly shows why.