Friday, September 30, 2011

The Help--Indian Edition

Having re-watched A Passage to India less than a week after The Help, I couldn't help (heh) but notice connections between the two. Both purport to be films about a marginalized social group (colonized Indians and African American women respectively), and both end up being more about whether or not whitey chooses to be an ass. Which is fine, but unavoidably places said marginalized social group into a supporting/reactive position. And it doesn't help to cast Alec freaking Guinness as the spokesman for Indian self-actualization, David Lean. Jesus.

It's really difficult for me to separate this film from what I know of Forster and where he was in his life when he was writing the novel on which this movie is based. Passage was the last book he wrote (though Maurice, way too gay to publish when he was alive, was released later, posthumously), and tries to express his homosexuality without ever at all saying that he was homosexual. So gayness and desire and freedom all get conflated with Indianness in a way that I don't think means to be racist, but ends up being problematic for the Indian characters none the less. In the film, the scene that most embodies this tendency is when Adela (who I believe is Forster's stand-in, though would never argue that in a paper because it's a minefield of fallacies) stumbles across a temple depicting erotic art, and then gets chased away by monkeys. Previously she had decided not to marry Ronny (which I think we can all agree is a good move, as he is an ass), but afterwards she is so frightened and excited and confused by the possibility of the very (sexual) liberation for which she has "quested" that she runs back to him, and has a major league freak-out at the Caves. It's not a good thing to make an entire subcontinent representative of anything, even if it is something positive like freedom, and this is the hook on which both the film and the novel get hung for me.

Along these lines, I don't like the way Victor Banerjee portrays Aziz. In the novel he is in love with Englishness, but is not as step and fetch as he appears in the film. What the movie does get right is the sexual tension between Aziz and Fielding. For Forster, I believe, in a better world they would be together. There's a lot more subtlety and ambiguity in both Mrs. Moore and the incident in the Marabar Caves in the novel, but the message ends up being the same: don't try to integrate. I think this is a pretty sensitive (if somewhat cynical) argument--rather than pretend that all people are the same, Forster, and the film, seem to suggest that there are some bridges that can't be crossed. To his credit, I think the distance isn't ontological but social: That years of prejudice prevent meaningful Anglo-Indian connection, and the breach will take years to be repaired. Aziz's retreat to the mountains and reclamation of Indian dress reminded me of the first act of Gandhi, but we never get to see what happens to Aziz after he rejects a British identity.

And I've managed to say very little about the film itself! In true Lean fashion, it's gorgeous--clean and epic and beautiful. It is my least favorite Forster novel and my least favorite adaptation, and the two are probably related. I'm curious to hear if the book recommends it for any other reason than Lean's name. What did you think, Nat? Did you find it at all racially problematic?

1 comment:

  1. TOTALLY on the same page here. I also hated the way Victor was portrayed. It's as if they could have lifted that performance and stuck it right in a black-face performance and no one would notice except maybe to comment on "realistic make-up." I would have much rather seen an honest sexual tension--especially given the bizarre continued commentary about Victor's porn collection.