Category Archives: Judy Davis

A Passage to India – Sonnet 5

Victor Banerjee’s performance as Dr. Aziz in David Lean’s A Passage to India really stole my heart. He brings the lived experience of the Raj for Indian professionals into our living rooms, and he does it with a gentle charisma, giving us a point of view character who is at once vulnerable and guarded, even with his friends.

Banerjee doesn’t pull any punches in the emotional roller-coaster of a diligent professional’s daily struggles trying to come to his own terms with the casual and unthinking injustices perpetrated by English colonists – their class solidarity and shameless racism. This sonnet is in the voice of his Dr. Aziz, as a continuation of the letter he sends to Adela Quested in the final scene of the film.

Against the backdrop of the swelling plain,
our differences looked trifling and tame –
and now that all is said and done, this same
exhaustion with the world smacks of disdain.
What little motives brought us to this pass –
what rancorous assumptions and half-truths
our trial brought forth! Yet with the grace of youth,
you cast aside the lies of tribe and class.
Surrounded by my children and my friends,
I write to you with gratitude – despite
the foolish things you said, when you took fright
and kowtowed as a wind-whipped sapling bends.
The fears you faced down on the stand were real;
in facing them, you bought me time to heal.

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Filed under Acting, Judy Davis, Poetry

A Passage to India – Sonnet 4

I finally finished David Lean’s A Passage to India today, and I can say now with conviction, they don’t make movies like this one any more. The subtlety of the performances from Judy Davis and Victor Banerjee in the last act of the film really took my breath away.

And David Lean creates space for their quieter artistic choices rather than boxing them into a crescendo-series the way so many directors do in contemporary film. You don’t come to epic set pieces expecting something like this nowadays. You look back on the first two acts of the film as you watch their character arcs come to a fitting conclusion, and you can see how every little detail in their artistic choices realizing these roles sets up the climax and denouement flawlessly.

Now I can really see why Russell Crowe tells people he wants to be the next Judy Davis.

This sonnet is in Adela Quested’s voice, trying to make sense of her own actions in hindsight, after the conclusion of the rape trial.

While she is on the stand, we are given a momentary flash-back to a moment on the slope, approaching the Marabar caves, when she clasped Dr. Aziz by the hand for support as she struggled against heat exhaustion and pressed on with him alone. And when giving testimony, she takes us back to a conversation the two of them had during a short rest in their climb. Mr. Fielding, trying to help her make excuses after the trial, suggests that it was suggestion alone that drove her to make the accusation – all along, he suspected she was surrounded by people who mistrusted Indians wholesale, and that this was the whole trouble.

In the end, we are left with the impression of a sensitive young woman who does not quite fit in anywhere, too alert to the contradictions that surround her station in the British Empire to make herself at home in the world.

The sense of touch, the recognition there
of conversations huddled on the brink
of truths we would not speak, but sought to share,
brings waves of vertigo each time I blink.
So many featherweight assumptions press
upon me from well-wishers – when I stayed
the course, I muddled through under duress,
unwilling to disown the scene I’d made.
The horror of the self alone pursued
me down the slope from those unblinking caves,
and how could I explain? Our friends seclude
themselves away from mirrors and close shaves
with self-reflection – they abhor self-doubt,
and cannot feel the fears I dream about.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry, Roll Credits

A Passage to India – Sonnet 3

While watching A Passage to India, David Lean’s adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel, I’ve begun reading Jawaharlal Nehru’s prison letters to his 10-year-old daughter, Indira Gandhi, who went on to become the Prime Minister of India (twice), like her father before her.

I discovered this little gem of a children’s book through a sweeping history of one of the world’s most vibrant new democracies, India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha, who is now my favorite history writer of all time. Guha’s history of India is rich in personal detail, while still remaining epic in scope and searchingly powerful in the variety of perspectives it brings to bear on each chapter in India’s eventful recent history.

Reading these letters (from 1931) today, while watching the third act of the movie, gave a special poignancy to the story. This sonnet is about Peggy Ashcroft’s Academy Award-winning performance as the Englishwoman Mrs. Moore.

Here, Mrs. Moore looks out on the moon’s reflection in the Indian ocean from a steamer on which she has left India alone, spurned by her son, the colonial magistrate, who has just refused bail to her friend, Dr. Aziz, on the grounds that his fiance (her friend Miss Quested) accuses Dr. Aziz of attempted rape, during an expedition to the eerie and remote Marabar caves.

To look upon the moonlight on the deep,
I cannot help remembering Aziz,
not as he is, but as we met – I keep
returning to that scene, the great Ganges,
the modesty with which this doctor smiled
to share the view with me, as if he knew
my heart the way an unassuming child
can read our minds at once – and as I do,
my very being stutters at the thought
that our encounter led him on to this
appalling consequence. Those empty caves,
so full of what we bring to them, and not
what we would take again – all that’s amiss
re-echoes in distorted, ceaseless waves.

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Filed under Acting, Corruption, Directing, Judy Davis, Poetry, Roll Credits

A Passage to India – Sonnet 2

I just read a review of Amartya Sen’s memoirs of India, and the review makes some telling points about the British Raj and its self-styled legacy. While I’m not ready to start a new book (still reading Ramachandra Guha’s epic India After Gandhi), Sen’s book sounds like a good companion piece to David Lean’s A Passage to India, which I’ve been watching in small chunks this week, to get a glimpse of the early Judy Davis, one of Russell Crowe’s all-time favorite actors.

In this scene, Adela Quested (played with understated charisma in this scene by Judy Davis) has just had a fight with her fiancé, the stiff-backed colonial magistrate, over his incivility to two Indians who were her companions at a small party hosted by another dignitary of the Raj. She needs a break from the awkward family circle at her fiancé’s fancy bungalow, and goes out cycling alone, where she comes across a ruined tantric temple guarded only by wild monkeys.

This set was built for the David Lean film, but in faithful imitation of an actual temple at Khajuraho. The scene is quite controversial with fans of the novel and play that inspired the film, as it does not appear in either one, and is far more explicit in exploring Adela’s sexuality than Forster’s book. The following sonnet was written without the benefit of having read the book or seen the rest of the film (yet).

A wind that runs before the noonday sun
cut through the palmy grass, unveiling sights
a bride might half-suspect, so far from Eton,
far more wondrous than the Marabar heights.
I slowed my bicycle to study each
rapturous frieze in this strange pantheon
of demi-gods, as if stone busts could teach
the ornament of love to anyone.
Perhaps it’s true that marriage cannot make
one know the other – even so, we reach
for what is of ourselves to give, and take
to us the trappings of a bond we would not breach.
The demons of the animal in us
drive out pure-minded thoughts of paribus.

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Filed under Acting, Directing, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry

A Passage to India

I started collecting Judy Davis movies because Russell Crowe once told someone who asked whether he wanted to be the next Mel Gibson, “No, I want to be the next Judy Davis!” I can easily see why. Her screen presence in David Lean’s epic adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India is really something – somehow her body language seems to be more pivotal in framing each shot than the camera position/angle itself.

But this little sonnet about the first 20 minutes of the film (I’m watching it piecemeal, I don’t know the ending yet!) is for Peggy Ashcroft, who plays young Adela Quested’s mother-in-law and companion on her first-ever journey abroad. Adela and her mother-in-law share a newcomer’s distaste for the blatant colonial racism under the Raj, and remark privately between themselves on the backwardness of the British authorities who form their welcoming party.

In the scene where I left off (because I couldn’t hear the dialogue over my fan – just trying to stay cool in this crazy heat wave!) Peggy Ashcroft’s character has an unexpected encounter with a young doctor (played by Victor Banerjee) whose life will become central to the story as it unfolds, at night in the ruins of a mosque abutting her son’s veranda. He rushes to stop her from setting foot inside, not realizing that she has already been courteous enough to remove her shoes. This poem is from her point of view.

If passage by steam, by post and by rail
can reunite lovers, can trusted friends
not be made of the neighbors fortune sends
these travellers – parting the painted veil?
A heatmap of garlands, a palette of dyes,
this country is bursting with artisans,
students of law and of our medicine,
dodging our taxis, avoiding our eyes.
How do you sanction the brutal disdain
of judge for defendant in England’s reign?
Liberties novel to people of caste
ring false when tea is the measure of class.
Allow me the privilege to know someone
whose race the whole Raj is at pains to shun.

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Filed under Acting, Dream Ensemble, Judy Davis, Poetry