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A brief encounter with David Lean

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 22, 2020

Idol talk: David Lean made some of the most admired motion pictures in history   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

An ardent fan recalls a two-minute meeting with the film-maker and the questions he didn’t get to ask

* David Lean is the director of some of the most admired motion pictures in history. Among them are Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai.

* Before Lean went big with those epic films, he made a clutch of small and intimate films, among them his Dickens adaptations — Oliver Twist and Great Expectations — and at least four films with the playwright Noël Coward in the 1940s: In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, and Brief Encounter.

In the early 1980s I came close to meeting my favourite film director and asking him scads of questions. Close but not quite. This is the story.

David Lean is the director of some of the most admired motion pictures in history. Among them are Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai. But before Lean went big with those epic films, he made a clutch of small and intimate films, among them his Dickens adaptations — Oliver Twist and Great Expectations — and at least four films with the playwright Noël Coward in the 1940s: In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, and Brief Encounter, for me the best picture in Lean’s filmography.

In the summer of 1981, it was announced that Lean would make a film based on EM Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. As long as I could remember I had loved that book, a many-layered story of cultural collision, and the relative impossibility of the British and Indians ever being friends, given their background as rulers and subjects.

Reports in London papers soon revealed that Lean would be in India to write the screenplay, and scout for locations, along with Santha Rama Rau, who had earlier adapted the novel for a stage production. In fact, Forster was alive when that play was staged and he liked it. Rama Rau had then offered to write the screenplay for Satyajit Ray to direct the film version, but Forster declined.

After Forster’s death, Rama Rau arranged a meeting between Lean and the dons of King’s College, Cambridge, with whom the rights to the novel rested. The British film-maker won them over with his knowledge of the novel and his admission that he wouldn’t even try to match its brilliance; the novel is eternal, his film would be ephemeral.

I found out that Lean was cooped up at the then Hotel Maurya Sheraton (now ITC Maurya). I began calling the hotel, which had instructions to deny that a ‘Mr Lean’ was a guest with them. I then visited the hotel, asking for him and pooh-poohed their assertions that he wasn’t there.

After laying siege for almost a week (and I am sorry if I sound like a paparazzo), I saw Lean making his way to The Pavilion, the coffee shop, for breakfast. I trailed him into the restaurant and said that I had to speak with him. “Boy,” he said to me, a touch patronisingly, “I am writing the screenplay and I can’t talk to you.”

Strapping lad that I was in those days, earnest and not easily deterred, I rattled off the names of all his films and told him just how much I adored Brief Encounter. He was amused. “Boy, you don’t give up, do you?” he said. “I don’t tolerate distractions while doing the script, please understand. But give me your phone number and I will have the producers of the film call you.”

Soon, at home, the phone rang. Lean’s producers were calling. The producers were Lord John Brabourne, Louis Mountbatten’s son-in-law, and Richard Goodwin, an Indophile film producer. They combined to produce many fine Agatha Christie films, the rights for which, it is rumoured, Brabourne’s father-in-law secured from the Dame herself.

Producers weren’t among the film people I usually spoke to. Besides, I had already offered an exclusive interview with David Lean to The Statesman, a newspaper I wrote regularly for. In this case, however, I set aside those inhibitions and met up with Brabourne and Goodwin. It turned out well, and while The Statesman wasn’t interested in it, the interview was published by the Sunday magazine of a Delhi paper.

I had established a reasonable rapport with Brabourne and Goodwin. When they were back in India, they invited me to lunch. You are so into Lean’s films and the novel we are filming, do you have any thoughts on who could possibly play the part of Aziz, they asked.

Dr Aziz, the young Muslim doctor, is the heart and soul of Forster’s novel. A young actor had just appeared in Shyam Benegal’s film Kalyug. To me he looked ideal for the part. I mentioned his name. Picking up the hotel stationery, Goodwin said, “Could you spell his name for me, please?” I did. Victor Banerjee, he wrote.

A few months later, the headline on the front page of a newspaper went: Victor Banerjee to play Aziz in Lean’s A Passage to India.

I never did meet Lean, except for that perfunctory two-minute conversation in the hotel lobby. He passed away in 1991. I still want to ask him scads of questions. One of them: The world knows and admires you for your film spectacles, the epic Hollywood films, but aren’t you prouder of your early British films? The Dickens adaptations and the films made in the ’40s with Noël Coward?

And then I would have waxed lyrical about my favourite film, bar none. Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) is about a small-town housewife who meets a young married doctor at a train station and they fall deeply in love. The heartbreaking drama of a love that cannot be plays to the stirring strains of Sergei Rachmaninoff ’s second piano concerto. Could he, or anyone else, ever match the exquisite, aching romanticism of Brief Encounter?

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on October 22, 2020
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