Louis Malle is a film director hard to assess because of the variety in his work and often gets left off lists of important film directors precisely because he can’t be categorised easily: yet he is as important as Bergman, Fellini or Ozu. He came to prominence as cinematographer for Jacques Cousteau’s Le Monde du silence in 1956. Cousteau called Malle the greatest cinematographer he had worked with, and gave him a co-director billing on the film. Malle made films for almost 20 years in France, then settled in America, where he made a dozen films in English. He excelled both as cinematographer and editor as well as writer and director. As well as his feature films Malle also directed some of the most original documentaries ever made. Some of his features were controversial, such as Murmur of the Heart, about incest, and Pretty Baby, about child prostitution. For me, his greatest achievement was 1969’s Calcutta/Phantom India; 1974’s Place de la République; and the English language films of his last years, Atlantic City and My Dinner with Andre, both 1981; and his final film, 1994’s Vanya on 42nd Street. Most of these are simultaneously documentary, feature film and social commentary.
Calcutta/L’Inde fantôme: réflexions sur un voyage 1969. Two films, a documentary and a television mini-series. That’s how they are usually described. But it’s a misleading description that arouses false expectations in the viewer. For a start, they are one film, not two, made on a five month journey to India in 1968 for personal reasons, a kind of self regenerating trip. Malle took 30 hours footage of film, and from that, after almost a year of editing back in France, created the almost two hours of Calcutta and the six hours of Phantom India.
And “documentary” is not accurate either. We divide film into just two categories, fiction (‘feature’) and fact (‘documentary’). But film has a wider scope than that. Film can be poetry, fantasy, propaganda, advertising, and an exploration of psychology, history and science, in which these two categories, of feature film and documentary, can be mingled together in various ways and to various degrees. It is this middle ground Malle explores. ‘Documentary’ suggests the imparting of facts, and this is not what Malle intended.
His film is subtitled “thoughts on a journey”, a bit like Wordsworth’s “emotions recollected in tranquillity”. Wordsworth was defining poetry when he made that comment. Perhaps Malle’s film is more a kind of poetry as well. But it’s more complex than that. Malle’s subtitle suggests the film is personal: “what I thought about what I saw in India”. And the nature of what he thought itself changed during the process of making the film, or at least in editing it. Phantom India begins with three episodes that show the tourist’s fascination with a totally unfamiliar culture. Religious ceremonies, traditional dance, and Madras filmi show India at its most colourful and romantic. Slowly Malle lets himself be overcome by the impact of filming literally thousands of people, and by the extreme poverty of most of them. His social conscience began to interfere with his objectivity as a film maker, and his commentary is more and more interlarded with bitter remarks about grasping priests, exploitation by rich industrialists, failure of the left to unite, administrative incompetence that leaves problems untended. Malle has prejudices against things which I also dislike, and I sympathise with his growing lack of objectivity. Better this horror bordering on despair he exhibits than the PC ignoring of any problem to avoid offending anyone, and the production of an anodyne ‘travelogue’ of use only to India’s tourist department.
Malle makes a further definition of what he is attempting. His film is called Phantom India. Malle is telling us that most of us have a phantom India, even the Indians. An India of mystics and yoga, of filmi, of gangsters, of the Raj, of religious conflict, of castes and untouchables, of computers and technology, of democracy and terrorism. But no one can make a documentary on India. There’s too much, too different, too many. India has 1.2 billion people, 12 major language groups and cultural entities and as many smaller ones. Again Malle tells us, this is the India that I, Malle, saw, my personal discovery, and it is a phantom like all the others.
Malle began his exploration with a belief that the camera is honest. The camera records what’s there. Because he knows nothing about this culture he lets the camera record, confident it will show what is. Gradually, I think, he comes to realise the camera is dishonest. It misrepresents reality, changes it, creates an idea of it sometimes very distant indeed from what is there. It does so in two ways: framing, and editing. Each represents a choice made by the film maker. Once made, a new, filmed, reality exists as well as the original scene before the camera arrived. Malle made film stars of the poor people he photographed: many of them were indeed very beautiful.
Malle and his two assistants arrived at Calcutta, and set up the procedure they would follow for the rest of the trip. There was no plan, no shooting schedule, no attempt to get naturalistic performances. The three film makers wandered by chance through the streets of the city, recording what they saw in long takes, slowly, leisurely, letting what was depicted speak to the viewer. Even Malle’s commentary at its most opinionated cannot detract from this. The film makers spent most of their time in southern India. From Calcutta they travelled through farmland to Madras. They spent some time in Madras and just outside that city, then went down to the tip of India, through Pondicherry and around to Trivandrum. Then northward up the coast to end up in Bumbai. So they saw farmland, jungle areas inhabited by aboriginal peoples, big cities, medium cities, slums, ashrams and the filmi world (in Madras, not Bumbai). Of note are the two films’ fascinating soundtrack of Indian music of all kinds.
The film Calcutta begins with a long survey of the city without commentary: religious rites, markets, transport, political demonstrations. Then it moves to an examination of slums and leper colonies, where 40% of Calcutta’s then 8 million live in danger to their health and lives, and slowly starve or die of disease. Authorities don’t clear the areas because refugees from elsewhere in the country would then arrive and create another slum. Malle finds a city of refugees. The film begins and ends abruptly. There is more, much more, he implies. Of course there is: filmi, Westernisation, industry, computer technology, cricket, organised crime, Satyajit Ray…What Malle shows is what mattered to him: people. Hundreds of closeups of faces, each one unique, most fated to suffer. This film is no Bicycle Thief or 400 Blows, both romanticised pictures of poverty. This is just poverty. The film asks you to dare look away. And yet it is no mere record of a social problem. It is a record of a city of irreconcilable contrasts.
Phantom India begins with a look at what fascinates the West about India: the way religion is integrated into virtually every facet of life. What would elsewhere be preserved folklore in India is still living tradition which attracts people from all over the world, whether hippies living the counter culture or those seeking enlightenment by entering an ashram. The camera impassively shows it all, religious processions in the cities and ancient rites in villages, as the film makers move down towards Madras. I recognised figures I had seen in the Apu films of Satyajit Ray. In Madras the film makers are fascinated by ascetics mortifying their flesh, by a juggernaut of enormous size being pushed through the streets while other believers shower the crowd from above with water. They visit a film studio and see the all singing all dancing cast in action. And then, in what is surely the highlight of the series, they see a training school for the Tamil classical dance, the Bharatanatyam, a form of worship of Lord Siva. It is majestic, ravishing, entrancing, a form of faith. And the music is mesmerising. The two young dancers recorded in their training by Malle are astonishingly perfect.
Everywhere Malle went he saw religious rites being performed. He gradually realised that Hinduism is not a religion: it is a thousand religions. Every worshipper chooses their god, and performs the rites that seem appropriate to them. Malle films many temple scenes, and is struck by the solitude of believers. In a country where no-one is ever alone, in worship you are alone with your god. It is an escape from the social system of caste and obligation. Sadhus who have renounced life wander around, respected and even feared.
The series’ second half is more sombre. Malle looks at political parties, and deplores how fragmented the left wing is. He expects the left to have a social welfare platform. But a lot of the time parties oppose each other instead. All oppose the Communists from China. Right wing parties also proliferate. Most parties oppose and despise the dominant party inherited from Nehru, the Congress Party. It satisfies nobody, attempting to please everybody. There is much rhetoric, and everyone takes a cut of whatever grants the government makes. The same as any Western country I suppose, just a little more obvious. And everything stops from time to time for a religious ceremony. Malle finds it all inexplicable. Trying to see what makes it all work Malle investigates the caste system, and finds it infinitely more complex than he had supposed. He sees there are really hundreds of castes. They originate from races, nationalities, social classes, political parties, tribes, ethnic groups, occupations, and they help to define these categories. They are a curse but also a preserver, bad and good intermingled in an Indian way. Malle also looks outside the caste system, at the plight of aboriginal peoples, all being minimalised by capitalist exploiters and by the government alike.
The series ends in Bumbai (Mumbai) where India meets the West. In its biggest city Malle doesn’t see anything exotic. He shows no filmi pictures or songs, no talk of progress. He sees a city of slums, and high rent slums at that, alongside jerrybuilt apartment blocks fated to collapse in the near future. There is industrialisation, a nuclear power plant, a thriving computer industry (since Malle’s time) but also many of the West’s problems. Exploitation, violence, corruption. Bombay is a disaster waiting to happen. Only religion and caste hold it together. The Bumbai Malle showed didn’t seem that different from the book I’m reading, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra, set in that city. Chandra fits in the same chaotic elements that make up Indian society as Malle does, he’s just not as dismayed by them as Malle. And somehow the chaos has resulted in a wonderful work of art, a novel by Chandra, and a film by Malle that surpasses most attempts to portray India.
Malle would go on to create his version of the Canterbury Tales by the simple expedient of setting up a camera in the Place de la République in 1974 and filming passers-by. And in 1994 he would portray a rich tapestry representing his Mona Lisa, a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya directed by Andre Gregory (Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street) which pays tribute to Chekhov’s themes, celebrates the ongoing traditions of theatre, and exhibits all the power of cinema at its most accomplished.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.