Based mainly on the 1924 book by E.M.Forster, and losely on the play by Santha Rama Rau, David Lean's script and film 'A Passage To India' relates the tale of two newcomers to India - Mrs Moore and Miss Adela Quested. Miss Quested is going to India to be re-united with her fiancee Ronny Heaslop, Mrs Moore's son. The two travel from London on a P&O steamer to Bombay, and thence by train to the fictional city of Chandrapore, down river from Benares. There they find a very enclosed society of British sahibs and mem-sahibs who have as little contact with Indians as possible.
The two ladies are appalled at the racist attitudes so common at the time, and quickly tire of the entertainment and social life offered at 'The Club'. Like countless travellers in years to come, Miss Quested wants to discover 'The real India', and dissappointed at a set-piece 'Meet The Natives' event at the Club, she chats with the principal of the government college, Mr Richard Fielding, who agrees to hold an 'At Home' and introduce Miss Quested and Mrs Moore to some Indians they can talk to: the charming Dr Aziz, and a high-caste Indian mystic Professor Godbole. The doctor suggests an outing to the nearby Marabar Caves, though Professor Godbole seems disconcerted at the idea and can provide no explanation as to the attraction of the caves, beyond that they have 'a reputation'. Ronny Heaslop is also against the trip; he argues with Adela, and they break their engagement.
Exploring the area by bicycle, Miss Quested finds some abandoned temples with graphic erotic carvings. Though chased away by a pack of monkeys, the incident plays on her mind, and she decides to marry after all. Ronny is pleased, and agrees that she and Mrs Moore should go on the outing to the Marabar Caves if they wish.
The outing takes a lot of organising for Dr Aziz, but with the help of his friends Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali, preparations are made. He spends the night on the railway platform, in case of a 'lack of punctuality' whilst Mrs Moore and Miss Quested arrive just in time for the train's departure, early in the morning. Mr Fielding and Professor Godbole are late, as Godbole's morning-prayers took longer than expected, but Fielding promises to catch up later. He arranges a lift in Mrs Callendar's car, but Godbole slips away, determined not to go after all.
After refreshments on the train, the small party arrives at their destination. The journey from the station to the lower caves is made by elephant. Dr Aziz rides on a howdah with the ladies, imagining himself like a Moghul emperor. They arrive at a valley of the lower caves. A small camp is made, refreshments prepared, drinks provided. The party enters the lower cave with a guide and other locals, but Mrs Moore nearly faints for an instant in the crush and noise of the echoes; she decides to stay at the encampment and persuades Miss Quested and Dr Aziz to continue to the higher caves alone, with only the guide to accompany them.
British Indian Empire flag, 1879-1945
Miss Quested believes herself to have been the victim of a sexual assault by Aziz, and rushes away down the hill through many cactus bushes, to be picked up in Mrs Callendar's car, conveniently passing. Aziz goes back to the lower caves, but can't explain Miss Quested's strange departure to Mrs Moore, or Mr Fielding, who has arrived at last. The party pack up hurriedly and return to Chandrapore. At the station they are met by a large crowd and many police: Dr Aziz is arrested. Adela is pushed forward by friends and family to go ahead with the prosecution. Aziz is to be represented by ace Calcutta lawyer Amritrao.
Mrs Moore returns home before the trial commences, and dies on the P&O steamer journey, near Aden. The trial begins, with Amritrao leading the defence against Inspector McBryde, for the prosecution. Half way through the trial, Miss Quested admits that she was mistaken. The trial collapses as the monsoon rains begin, and Aziz is carried away shoulder high, the hero. Miss Quested leaves the court in a daze, shunned by the other Europeans, to be rescued by Fielding, who takes her to Government College. There they learn by telegram of Mrs Moore's death, and from Godbole that Amritrao is seeking damages against Miss Quested. Fielding goes to visit Dr Aziz and convinces him to abandon the damages.
Godbole leaves for Kashmir, to take up a post of Minister for Education. Miss Quested returns to England immediately, all thoughts of marriage forgotten. Fielding also returns to England at the end of the term, to marry Mrs Moore's daughter, Stella, played by David Lean's wife Sandy. Dr Aziz also goes to Kashmir, and opens a small hospital. Fielding writes to him, but Aziz, assuming that Fielding has married Miss Quested, ignores the letters. Fielding and Stella visit Kashmir and locate Dr Aziz, after receiving directions from Godbole. Aziz is pleased to find out Fielding hadn't married Miss Quested after all, and they part the best of friends. Dr Aziz writes to Miss Quested asking for her forgiveness, too.