PHANTOM INDIA (L'Inde fantôme) – made for TV A
aka: A Reflection on a Journey
France (378 mi – 6 hr and 18 mi, originally shot on 35 mm, now on Beta SP video) 1968 d: Louis Malle
In the autumn of 1967 I was asked by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to present in India a series of eight French films, including THE FIRE WITHIN — films more or less representative of the new French cinema. And I said yes. So I went to Delhi and Calcutta and Madras and Bombay presenting those films. I was supposed to stay two weeks but I ended up staying almost two months….After those two months I realized that although India was impossible to understand for a foreigner — it was so opaque — yet I was so completely fascinated by it that I would have to come back. So I returned to France at the end of 1967, and in a couple of weeks I raised the money I needed, which was almost nothing, and went back in early January with two friends of mine, a cameraman and a sound man. My proposition was that we would start in Calcutta, look around and eventually shoot. No plans, no script, no lighting equipment, no distribution commitments of any kind…. The interesting aspect of those documentaries for me was that I took one month just to examine the material, and then stayed in the cutting room for a year, until the end of 1969 practically. I was in Paris, I was going to the editing room every day and it was as if I was still in India…It’s been like a big chunk of my life. It was enormously important for me, and I’m still trying to make sense of it today.
—Louis Malle, in Malle on Malle
Originally commissioned by France’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, Louis Malle went to India in 1967 on a cultural mission to show French films, becoming so enamored with the country that he extended his two week visit to two months, returning early the following year with cinematographer Étienne Becker (son of director Jacques) and soundman Jean-Claude Laureux, wandering across the country filming whatever drew their interest, spending four months there accumulating about 30 hours of raw, bare-bones footage, later returning to France where he spent a year editing the material, where the resulting 7-part, 6-hour documentary was initially shown in 1969 on BBC television. India was so offended by the project that they effectively banned the BBC from filming in India for several years. With the exception of the major city of Bombay (now Mumbai), the Indian public greeted this French photo-journalist team with curiosity that grew to open suspicion, where often they were met with hostility. At that time, only 2% of the population spoke English, so there were official “spokespersons” who spoke to the camera, with the majority of the population left unrepresented. As Malle, along with Guy Bechtel, co-authored the film’s narration which he speaks in voiceover, he attempts to offer context to what the viewer is seeing, but also remains silent for extended durations. This leaves him open to criticism, however, from those who suggest his purely random shots and often superficial reflections reflect a colonialist’s eye, in particular a French cultural perspective that often leads to an erroneous view of Indian culture. The same criticism could be weighed against Jean Rouch, another legendary French filmmaker and anthropologist, one of the first to show documentary footage of Africa in the early 1950’s, spending some 60 years there developing his shared anthropology, often blurring the lines between fiction and reality, a director that influenced Roberto Rossellini to go to India in 1957-58 with a hand-held camera and no script to make India: Matri Bhumi (1958). What’s significant with the works of all three directors is the act of even attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible, creating rapturous images that contain a timeless quality and a limitless capacity to haunt viewers for generations to come.
Malle is more interested in the images than the interpretations, where the camera simply finds the most amazing subjects and depicts them quite naturally as “chance encounters,” according to Malle, where he’s not targeting any particular political or religious view, or resort to sensationalism or crude exhibitionism, but trying to keep his own directorial eye free from preconceived notions, allowing the staggering array of images to speak for themselves, where the viewers can decipher on their own what they think, showing sun worshippers staring directly into the sun until they go blind, a yogi contorting himself into seemingly impossible positions, a mob pulling an immensely overloaded shrine through the streets during a religious festival, two young female students dancing with remarkable beauty and precision inside a religious dance school, or religious followers literally impaling themselves with all variables of cutlery through their noses, cheeks, lips, chest, arms, you name it, as you’ve likely never seen anything like it. Malle may have been more interested in a raw and unedited view of India, where perhaps the poor draw his interest more than the powerful, producing countless images of exploited peasants, remnants of a hundred years of British colonialism, only becoming a free and democratically independent nation in 1950, which is not without continually unresolved social class issues. The film is recommended even if you have to walk in and out, due to its length, and only watch parts of it, as it's a rare opportunity, deeply rewarding and unforgettable, one of the most colorful and astonishingly beautiful films ever seen.
Malle himself gently narrates the film, which is for the most part impassive, strictly as an outside observer, where it’s hard not to be impressed with the nature of Malle’s non-judgmental narration, which Godard would over-intellectualize, and Herzog would over-dramatize, but in Malle’s hands, it becomes a quiet, understated reflection on the relationship between God and man, on how British Colonialism left a perpetually exploited underclass in India, and how a Western European thinker can attempt to come to terms with incomprehensible Indian religious customs and rituals that defy belief, which may, in fact, explain the title, believing that immersing oneself in the cultural experience of India is more valuable than having to know or understand it. Despite the overpopulated humanity crushing against one another under unbearable heat, where there is no such thing as privacy, much of the filming felt as if he was absorbed in a dream, where one loses oneself inside the moment, but reality always found a way to awaken him from his reverie and remind him of the horrid conditions that so many people routinely live with, such as the inexplicable caste system that leaves so many in a permanent state of poverty, where begging is a natural part of everyday life, where humans ignore the hundreds of vultures waiting patiently for wild dogs to finish eating a cow carcass on the side of the road before they begin their own ritualized feeding frenzy.
Shot in 7 sections, each 54 minutes in length, much of it filled with a stream of natural sounds or local religious music which plays unhindered, heightening the authenticity of the senses as the images flow through many temples where worshipers are dutifully performing prayer rituals, where cameras are not allowed entrance into particularly sacred areas, but for the most part, the camera, if at first seen as a shocking intruder, such as to the celebrants at a wedding ceremony, eventually becomes forgotten and is allowed to simply observe the incredible variety of cultural phenomena in India. Malle is allowed to let his cameras roll for several days observing two young girls who dance for several hours every day, each beautifully adorned in makeup and flowing colors, but both are drenched in sweat which is pouring off their cheeks, their costumes soaked in perspiration, Both are the best dancers in their religious school, who through practiced, meticulous dance movements learn to ignore thinking about the continuously intricate physical demands, and instead devote their minds totally to a highly involved relationship to a higher spirit, something Malle called “a conversation with God.”
Malle observes there is a great deal of dancing in India, but never with the opposite sex, claiming he witnessed wedding ceremonies for 6 months, but never witnessed any hint of touching or affection, which is just not seen anywhere in the country. Of course, just before he finished filming, he captured a young couple flirting with each other, thinking they were out of sight. Men even worship at shrines from the opposite sides of the road as women. Malle also captures a fishmonger with a deceptive associate fleece a group of fisherman into paying lower prices for their goods, or followers bathing in the stink of the Ganges river, which is so polluted Mark Twain once remarked “even the bacteria can’t survive,” though the rampant disease now causes health epidemics. We see row after row of a sea of bricks, watching brick makers make repeated, identical hand motions to assemble into their boxes the exact proportions of clay that are then left to dry in a huge open expanse, or a human being whose job all day is to act like a scarecrow, women foraging grass in vacant lots cursing the cameraman to leave them alone, and we follow the camera moving in and out of temple corridors observing how humans develop such peculiar mannerisms as they attempt to communicate with God, concluding that one reason people may pray so much is that it is the only time in their lives where they can find a solitary or private moment. But Malle makes no pretense in even attempting to understand the unfathomable layers of class barriers which are built into the social caste system, which multiplies into still more numerous layers of religious hierarchy.
In the later episodes, Malle travels to the rural north where the women hide their faces behind their veils, similar to Muslim head dress, and where he discovers a bat tree in Madras, resembling Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), a phenomenon that people leave completely alone, as well as small isolated pockets of Indian Catholics and Jews. Malle explores outcast groups that are being driven into extinction, some that are even below the lowest Untouchable caste, whose children are not allowed in school, while others refuse to send their children to school, where either way, their way of life is unchanging, closely resembling what it was hundreds of years ago, so there is little likelihood that they could ever integrate into mainstream Indian society. We discover the indigenous Bondo and Togo tribes, the former wearing nothing but loincloths and layer after layer of similar looking silver rings around their neck, whose sole sustenance is selling hand-made straw brooms that sell for 10 brooms for 1 rupee, literally pennies for their labor, for a product that will sell as far away as Bombay, while the latter has never in their entire history known violence. Neither tribe shares Hindu views, as they slaughter cows, have less than puritan sexual views, divorce is allowed in exchange for a few goats, and they refuse to pay any taxes to the government, actually deserting their villages when the taxman arrives, hiding out in the forest. So now, in retribution, their land is being taken away from them for capitalist development.
80% of Indians still live in agrarian villages. We learn that families are assigned the same water holes for generations, all assigned by a caste system that was supposedly outlawed years ago, but is still practiced without question, an unseen social boundary evidenced by the hundreds of lowly workers who, for lack of soap, are forced to physically beat laundry against the rocks in the river, which they do daily so that someone else’s hands can stay clean. As killing cows is forbidden, it’s largely a vegetarian society where people’s lives are much as they have been for generations, with women stooped over planting rice in flooded fields, picking tea leaves that are then shipped off to England, where grass is mixed with cow dung and dried to burn and provide heat, where elephants perform the hard labor, where a blind camel tied to a wheel is seen walking in the same circle for ten or more hours per day, where marriages are still arranged, resisting capitalist expansion, even modernist farming techniques, as they conflict with their Hindu beliefs not to harm any life forms, which include worms and insects that tractors would easily harm.
As India has a population that exceeds South America and Africa combined, the latest trends show villagers forced to find work in the bigger cities, creating ugly city ghettos, shantytowns forming alongside modern construction where the lowest castes are left to fend for themselves. Malle examines Indian politics, which gets a little less interesting, as it only hints at the current Pakistani-Indian border conflict, as even in the late 60’s, right wing parties were starting to use inflammatory rhetoric in describing the despised radical customs and behavior of the Muslim Pakistani’s, claiming they were given their own country by the Western powers, now called foreigners in an attempt to discredit them as human beings, though there are still 50 million Muslims living in India. Odd that a country that refuses to harm worms and insects has no problem going to war against an entire nation of human beings, flaunting nuclear weapons to boot, but this was not examined in the film. Instead, Malle floods the screen with the faces of children and continues to search for an India that peacefully co-exists with nature, whose philosophical teachings preach individual enlightenment, where we see evidence of prayerful ritual everywhere we go, but at the same time, wretched unending human exploitation of other humans, just like the European Colonial model, where the overwhelming presence of poverty becomes heart-wrenching after awhile. Progress may be coming slow, but it’s coming, reminding one of the end of Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s 2000 film PLATFORM, where the past meets the present, where the sound of the film is suddenly filled with street sounds, traffic, trucks, tractors, distant shouts or street chatter, radios, the busy human noises of modernization.