When we speak of Freudian interpretations of drama, we must distinguish those works created with no thought of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory from those that were created with Freud’s theory in mind. Plays written before Freud can safely be assumed to fall into the first category, as when Hamlet is interpreted in terms of the Oedipus complex. There is less certainty regarding dramatic forms created after Freud’s theory had become well known, for there is always the possibility that an artist purposely decided to spice things up by putting a little Freudian symbolism in his story. In the case of Forbidden Planet (1956), the Freudian element is explicit, the monster being finally explained as a material manifestation of the id. In the case of this latter type of movie, we are forced to interpret it in Freudian terms even if we do not care one whit for Freud’s theory. That being said, it is with some confidence that I place A Passage to India into this latter category. And so, while I am not especially prone to interpret drama in Freudian terms, this movie appears to have been influenced by Freud’s theory to a degree that references to that theory are unavoidable.
But first things first. Based on the novel of the same name, published in 1924, the story is set in India in the 1920s, when India was still a part of the British Empire. However much the novel may have expressed criticism of British colonialism, the movie itself was produced in 1984, in a postcolonial world, where the collective judgment is that colonialism was simply wrong. In fact, it is regarded as so wrong that little room is left for subtlety or nuance. The Indians are all portrayed as good in one form or another—religious, moral, polite, kind, etc. —while the British are all portrayed as bad in one form or another—rude, snobbish, arrogant, bigoted, etc. —with only three exceptions: Adela (Judy Davis), Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), and Fielding (James Fox). Adela and Mrs. Moore are just setting out for India at the beginning of the movie, so they do not share the prejudices of the British that have been in India for a while. Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) makes this explicitly clear when, after almost being run over by an automobile full of British citizens, he says to his friend that all Englishmen become unpleasant within two years of coming to India, while he gives Englishwomen only six months.
Fielding is a special case. He has been in India for some time, and yet he retains his good qualities, being friendly with Indians and treating them with respect. That is so we have someone to identify with. You see, we all like to flatter ourselves that had we lived in some other time and place, we would somehow still have our American, twenty-first century values and sensibilities, and that we would have been moral heroes, refusing to go along with the norms and mores of that place and time. So, had we lived in the antebellum South, we would, of course, have freed all of our slaves. Had we come of age in Nazi Germany and been ordered to be a guard at Auschwitz, we would, of course, have refused, choosing to be executed rather than participate in the holocaust. And had we been a British subject assigned to a post in India in the early twentieth century, we would, of course, have been just like Fielding, refusing to go along with his white countrymen in their condemnation of an Indian (Dr. Aziz) who has been charged with attempted rape of a white woman (Adela). Without Fielding to identify with, the white reader of the novel and, later, the white audience of the movie might have been adrift. White people might have tried identifying with some Indian in the movie, but most white people really prefer to identify with a character that is also white. It is one thing to ask people to identify with a white person who has no prejudices against people of color, but asking them to identify with the people of color themselves might have been asking too much, certainly when the novel was published, but probably today as well.
Adela goes bicycle riding by herself, and she decides to explore a seldom used path. It takes her to an abandoned building adorned by sculptures of men and women making love. This arouses repressed sexual desires that distress her greatly. Then she notices a bunch of monkeys looking at her. Agitated, they start to chase her and she runs away. The monkeys represent her animal passions, and what she is really running away from is her own lust. On a previous evening, she had broken off her engagement with her fiancé, but upon returning, she tells him she has changed her mind and wants to get married. In other words, even though she no longer loves him, she figures it is better to marry than burn. Other Freudian symbolism consists of Aziz having a fever and the sweltering heat of the sun, all of which are suggestive of sexual passion.
When Adela and Mrs. Moore, Adela’s prospective mother-in-law, first arrived in India, they wanted to meet some Indians socially. They got no help in this regard from the British people that lived in India, who were appalled at the idea, but Aziz accidentally made the acquaintance of Mrs. Moore and through her Adela. He is so enamored of them that he invites them to a picnic in which they can visit some mysterious caves. Through one incredible coincidence after another, one by one, many of the people who were invited are eliminated—Fielding arrives too late, a chaperon arranged by Adela’s fiancé is dismissed by her, and Mrs. Moore becomes fatigued and remains behind—so that only Aziz, Adela, and a guide arrive at some caves.
Aziz runs off to smoke a cigarette. This is nothing but a contrivance, the movie’s way of allowing Adela to be alone. She enters a cave by herself. The cave, of course, represents her unconscious. When Aziz finishes his cigarette, he goes looking for her. He stands at the entrance to the cave as if about to enter. Now the cave represents her vagina. She becomes overwhelmed with her forbidden lust for Aziz and bolts, eventually falling down the hillside into some cactus. Just as she was really running from her sexual desires when she ran from the monkeys, so too here she runs from her desire for Aziz and not from Aziz himself. Being hysterical, she so vividly imagines being ravished by Aziz that she believes he actually assaulted her. As a result, charges are brought against Aziz.
Every white person thinks Aziz is guilty except Mrs. Moore, who says there is nothing she can do and returns to England (dying on the way), and Fielding, who asserts Aziz’s innocence. Adela’s fiancé is a judge, but he has to recuse himself. He is replaced by an Indian judge. During the trial, much is made of the fact that Aziz is a widower and therefore deprived of a sexual outlet, except for his occasional visits to brothels or his collection of girlie magazines. Needless to say, nothing similar is said about Adela’s being a maiden who is also deprived of a sexual outlet. When Adela is put on the witness stand, she recants her previous testimony, and Aziz is acquitted. At this point, we realize why the judge had to be an Indian. If Aziz had gotten a fair trial from a white judge, this would have been out of keeping with the movie’s simplistic formulation: Indians good; British bad.
So, as often happens in movies in which a man of color is accused of raping a white woman, he turns out to be innocent because the woman is to blame somehow: either the woman lied, was hysterical, or behaved in provocative manner. I covered this subject at greater length in my essay, “Rape and Race in the Movies.”