A passage into time

The writer looks back at his stint as an assistant director on the sets of David Lean’s A Passage to India, released 30 years ago.

June 07, 2014 03:55 pm | Updated 03:55 pm IST

David Lean's A Passage to India.

David Lean's A Passage to India.

I was originally approached to play Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India . The producer Richard Goodwin’s daughter had met me at university in England, and thought I looked the role. I grabbed the opportunity to audition, though I had neither acting ambitions nor illusions about my abilities, because it would get me a chance to present my credentials to work behind the camera with the legendary David Lean. I met the Indian production coordinator, Shama Habibullah, and though I could bluff my way through French New Wave cinema and the German Expressionists, it was Shama’s also being ex-Cambridge that landed me the job as one of 12 Indian Assistant Directors (ADs).

Most of the shoot was to be in Bangalore so that’s where the production was based. The cast and crew were staying at the West End Hotel and the production office was housed in a ground floor wing of four cottages suitably refurbished — beds have overtones of casting couch culture. The director would arrive just before the shoot less than two weeks away, so the First AD quickly briefed us about readying the mountain of planning and paperwork that is involved in film production. I received the bound screenplay reverentially like the Japanese accept a business card, and was instructed how to ‘break it down’. Along with the other ADs (Arundhati Nag was the only woman among the 12) we divided the job of mining the script for props, locations, characters, costume & make-up continuity and special production needs so we could prepare an optimal schedule and list of requirements for each scene.

In Indian cinema, the schedule is based on the lead actor’s availability but on an international production, the actors are on call and the location takes priority. This enables streamlined scheduling so that you ‘wrap’ a location and move on to the next. Then you make lists for each department delving into the subtext of the script — logistically speaking. For example, if the hero has to dive into a river to save the drowning girl, he will need several sets of the same costume to facilitate the several re-takes a director or stunt coordinator may demand. And it might help to have a hair dryer and iron on location. (This simple lesson helped me years later when I did an ad film involving kids and anticipated that children invariably get food or mud stains on their clothes.)

Quickly I learnt that an AD’s job is different from helping a director decide what emotion to evoke from a character — yes sir, a director would be affronted if his lowly assistant made a suggestion like that; some things are the same whether you are in Hollywood or Bollywood. An AD steers far away from creative ideas — especially when working with David Lean. An AD involves himself in production: planning, organising, fixing. The team of ADs is like a corporate CEO’s office, managing the various departments: Cinematography, Sound, Production Design, Costumes, Hair and Make-up, Props, Stunts, even Catering have to be suitably instructed and often supervised.

Catering? Well, anyone involved in the Indian Film Industry knows is that food is what keeps things ticking on a shoot. Too much, the pace slows down; too little, you risk a go-slow from the union staff; not right, you get disgruntled murmurs; special requirements not met, the star stalks off. But yes, we didn’t have to worry too much about catering on this production. There were two huge mobile kitchens that arrived with shiploads of all the other equipment. One was set up for Indian food with a top chef from Bombay in charge. The other was dedicated to Western cuisine. The meals that emerged from these fully equipped kitchen trailers were 5-star stuff and the menus changed every day.

The main location was the Bangalore Palace, the grounds of which served as a studio lot for vast outdoor sets such as Bombay docks including a couple of ships, a London street, a busy local marketplace, and various other smaller scale building exteriors. In addition, parts of the Palace were dressed up and used for both outdoor and indoor locations.

The Governor’s garden party is a scene I remember vividly, since it involved us recruiting 300 ‘high society’ guests who had to be available for four consecutive days from nine to five — and wear the same outfit on all four days. The recruiting would be easy enough; the Bangalore press had given ample coverage to Lean’s film and the film shoot was a happening thing. We just spread the word that we were auditioning and people came. To ensure that they wouldn’t drop out after the first day’s novelty we did a couple of things. Incentive in the form of payment of course, but fine food and a variety of entertainment to keep them interested. We asked our stars Victor Bannerjee (who I am happy to concede was a perfect Aziz), Judy Davis, Alec Guinness, James Fox, Nigel Havers, and the utterly delightful Dame Peggy Ashcroft to mingle with the guests even when they might not be required for the scene. And with regard to costumes, we got our guests to design their own costumes — fancy dress as it were — and our costume department was happy to collect whatever needed cleaning and launder clothes overnight.

Crowd scenes are one time during a shoot ADs get to contribute creatively. Background Action or Crowd Control it is called but it involves more than just shepherding people in different directions on cue. Crowds have to act too, and the way we do it is to give groups backgrounds. So wife A may just have discovered that her husband B is having an affair with mistress C and is giving her the cold shoulder or confronting him. This device gives crowds an authenticity even if they are not trained actors.

It was more than halfway through the shoot before I actually had a conversation with David Lean. As an underling, you were just not meant to approach him. He was always surrounded by the inner circle — producer Richard Goodwin, First AD, cameraman Earnest Day, and of course the stars. Lean’s long time friend and then-recent wife Sandra Hotz (not to be confused with Sandra Lean who he later married and stayed with till his death) was always with him. At 74, Lean was frail and forgetful. Sandra was perfect to gently make sure he conserved his energy and also to help him find his focus. She was always by his side, driving their custom-built Mercedes Estate to distant locations while he conducted discussions with a member of his team. On long journeys, the convoy would stop periodically to let someone out and the next person in. So I was surprised to be summoned to the Merc. We were to shoot a church scene in Udhagamandalam and had to make a decision whether to transport a crowd of 50 from Bangalore and arrange accommodation for them, or to wing it with local residents. Having studied in the Nilgiris for seven years, I was able to call my local guardians and other ‘uncles and aunts’ and mobilise a crowd. On the ‘recce’ (reconnaissance), David Lean wanted to satisfy himself that the crowd had the right look and so we arranged a get together at the Ooty Club where in a rare departure from his withdrawn and preoccupied demeanour, he had to socialise and express his appreciation of my resourcefulness.

Things didn’t always go smoothly. There were times when the First AD pulled me up for shirking my duties. My priority was to be on the set watching the director and cameraman at work — I was there to learn. I didn’t want to be a hundred yards away waiting with background actors to tell them when to cross. Worse, I didn’t want to be assigned duties involving supervising the cleaning of actors’ dressing rooms, or across town checking the outfits of a brass band that was part of next day’s scene, or back in the hotel drafting call sheets. I wanted to be where the action was. But in retrospect, it was the production and logistic aspect of filmmaking I learnt, that has stood me in greater stead than any crumbs of Lean’s cinematic genius I might have gathered.

A Passage to India is not among Lean’s best work. The panoramic landscapes shot in India lack the epic quality and magic of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago . One of the main problems was the cave sequence which is the crux of the film. The exteriors had to be scaled down because the Karnataka government, responding to press and public protest, withdrew permission to blast holes in the hillside location. So from this massive rock cliff scarred with scores of cave mouths suggesting a complex catacomb of dark interiors — a metaphor of Adela Quested’s shadowed psyche — production design could only come up with a section of hillside. Equally, there were problems with Adela’s psyche. Australian actress Judy Davis, fresh from her stunning debut in My Brilliant Career , was in disharmony with Lean about her motivation. Whether the character is deluded or fantasising or malicious in her accusation that Aziz attempted to rape her, she told me, the actor playing her should be clear exactly what is in the character’s mind. Lean’s take was, Adela was overwhelmed and confused by the Indian experience, but he wasn’t able to offer anything more specific.

The other character which presented a problem was Professor Godbole. Alec Guinness and David Lean were long-time friends and had worked together often in the past. Sentimentality caused the blunder of having the Englishman playing the Indian pundit. The problem was not so much that Sir Alec made a caricature of Godbole, as that his revelations about India are made redundant by the perspicacity of Mrs Moore, superbly played by Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Most of Sir Alec’s scenes were cut from the film, and he and David Lean never spoke to each other again.

However, A Passage to India was a much talked-about film. It marked Lean’s return to direction after a 14-year hiatus when critics panned Ryan’s Daughter . He was now rewarded with 11 Oscar nominations including Best Film, Best Direction and Best Actress for Judy Davis. The film only won for music and for Dame Peggy in a supporting role (she also won the Golden Globe and the BAFTA for Best Actress!) Her performance was among the more memorable things in the film. And she remains an enchanting memory of my time on the production. Her anecdotes recounting interactions with the greats of British theatre and cinema were both awesome and amusing.

Another vivid image I carry is of Judy Davis bursting into operatic arias while she was being made up in her dressing room at the Bangalore Palace. She was lead singer in a rock band, and had us in hysterics the way she would weave phrases to communicate into her coloratura. But my favourite memory from the production is an incident that involved 600 junior artists who were to be coolies and locals at the Bombay docks. Director of photography Ernest Day wanted bright sunlight for the scene but the day was cloudy. The groups comprising the crowd were poised to move at a moment’s notice and the actors were in readiness for the call of ‘roll camera’ and ‘action’ but not even Reverend Lean could part the clouds to let the sunlight through for the 10 minutes it would take us to get the master shot. The restless junior artists were ushered to seating and eating under a giant shamiana when sunlight looked unlikely and back again into position when there was a ray of hope. This happened for the best part of two days. One time when it looked as if the sun might win the fight with the clouds, Arundhati’s husband Shankar Nag came to visit the set. The superstar of Kannada cinema delighted the crowds to distraction by his arrival and we lost the moment. But like a wicket soon after a dropped catch, all was forgiven when, even as Nag was being briefed about the problem, the sun came out and he, guest directing the crowd through the megaphone, scored a take in one. There was not a single soul in that crowd of 600 who were in any doubt that their hero had had a conversation with God. In 1990, when I heard of the tragic road accident that cut short his contribution to Kannada cinema, I shed a silent tear. David Lean died a few months later and he earned my salute of admiration. When Dame Peggy passed on later the same year, it felt like the loss of an aunt, and made more moving her death scene in the film on the ship mid passage back to England.

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