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Passage to India, A (1965)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Passage to India, A (1965)
For Play of the Month, BBC, tx. 16/11/1965
110 minutes, black & white
DirectorWaris Hussein
ProducerPeter Luke
ScriptSantha Rama Rau
AdaptationJohn Maynard
Original novelE.M. Forster

Cast: Sybil Thorndike (Mrs Moore); Virginia McKenna (Adela Quested); Cyril Cusack (Mr Fielding); Zia Mohyeddin (Dr Aziz); Ishaq Bux (Qasim Ali); Michael Bates (Professor Godbole)

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In 1920s India, during the dying years of the British Raj, the fiancée of the City Magistrate accuses a local doctor of trying to rape her.

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E.M. Forster (1879-1970) apparently distrusted and disliked the cinema, rejecting all attempts to purchase the film rights to his stories. He wasn't quite so averse to the theatre, however, and after considerable persuasion consented to Santha Rama Rau adapting the climactic courtroom scene from A Passage to India for the stage.

John Maynard adapted the 1960 play for Play of the Month (BBC, 1965-83), adding material from the novel, compressing most of the plot into just six main scenes, since the production was predominantly studio-bound. Director Waris Hussein managed to integrate some location footage throughout the production, but with mixed results.

While Sybil Thorndyke is perhaps too robust as the ailing Mrs Moore, Zia Mohyeddin had made a name for himself playing Dr Aziz on the stage, and repeated his incisive performance for television. After a rather perfunctory opening scene in the mosque comes the tea party at the home of the hard-bitten Fielding (Cyril Cusack). This major section shows Aziz, a man of medicine and a progressive thinker who longingly recalls India's Mogul past, striving to reconcile East and West, past and present. His reverie about ancient Emperors and their concubines, while necessary for its effect on Adela Quested (Virginia McKenna) - who is clearly fragile and neurotic from the outset - is, however, a little heavy-handed. Equally, the symbolic impact of the echoing caves on Adela and Mrs Moore is powerfully presented with pounding sound effects, but lacks something in mystery.

The trial itself is surprisingly brief, though very effective, as is the emotionally fraught final scene between Fielding and Aziz. The cast also includes Dandy Nichols as the awful Mrs Turton, while Saeed Jaffrey (who played Godbole in the 1962 Broadway production of the play), powerfully pours scorn over Miss Quested even after she retracts her accusations. Jaffrey later appeared in David Lean's 1984 film adaptation.

Compared with Lean's version, the tone of the television play is harsher and less conciliatory, but also more dogmatic and less ambiguous. Aziz is less sympathetic but more plausible, while Fielding is plainer, even blunt, about his dislike of the British in India. Inevitably constricted by its stage play origins, the BBC version remains far more faithful to the letter of Forster's novel.

Play of the Month presented three further Forster adaptations - 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' (tx. 2/2/1966), 'Howard's End' (tx. 19/4/1970) and 'A Room with a View' (tx. 15/5/1973).

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Aziz meets Fielding (3:29)
2. Train journey (2:10)
3. Mrs Moore's farewell (3:23)
4. Adela's confession (3:59)
Bux, Ishaq (1917-2000)
Cusack, Cyril (1910-1993)
Hussein, Waris (1938- )
Jaffrey, Saeed (1932-)
McKenna, Virginia (1931-)
Thorndike, Sybil (1882-1976)
Legal Drama
TV Literary Adaptation