Postcards from the Edge: Louis Malle in India

Unaccountably missing or overlooked on most reviewers’ top DVD releases of 2007 was a remarkable set from Eclipse (Criterion’s no frills, affordable editions division) – The Documentaries of Louis Malle. Among the 7 titles featured were the relatively obscure God’s Country [broadcast on PBS in 1986, but filmed in 1981], And the Pursuit of Happiness [1986, also made for television), Place de la republique [1974] featuring man-in-the-street interviews on a busy Parisian boulevard, Humain, trop humain [1974], a fascinating time capsule of French auto workers with industrial noise and Godard-like imagery and the 18 minute short Vive le tour [1962]. But the real highlights of the collection were Phantom India [1969], a 378 minute portrait of that nation that was distributed theatrically as a 7-episode series, and Calcutta [1969], which was filmed at the same time but released separately (It was nominated for a Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival). To call both films an overwhelming experience is an understatement to say the least.

In Calcutta, Malle drops you directly into the teeming streets of the city where humanity washes over you like a giant wave. The sounds and images captured – the faces of people looking directly into the camera, religious rituals, physically grueling occupations, celebrations, etc. – defy a lot of the stereotypical views Westerners have of this culture. At the same time, it’s a luxury and a relief to be able to experience this from the comfort of one’s own living room and not have to actually subject yourself to the claustrophobic reality of being there amid the teeming crowds, extreme heat, poverty and filth. Yet, for the people who live here and those who have come from far away (Europe, America, Japan) seeking spiritual enlightenment, none of this seems to matter or even be noticeable.

A scene from the 1969 Louis Malle documentary, Calcutta.

Both films are extremely raw and loosely structured and that’s how Malle wanted it. He went to India with a two-man crew, a sound man and a cinematographer, and no planned agenda or set ideas about what he was going to shoot. “It was a film of chance encounters,” Malle stated. What he captured is so far removed from what we experience on a day-to-day basis that it could easily be scenes from another planet in another galaxy.

Louis Malle (center) and his cameraman shooting a scene from his 1969 documentary Calcutta.

When Malle prepared to edit his countless hours of footage into some accessible, final version, he said “After six months in India you’re not even quite sure that two plus two is four.” Logic often takes a back seat to the behavior depicted on the screen. For example, in Calcutta, we see hordes of people drinking and bathing in the holy waters of the obviously polluted Ganges river. Is it possible people can do this and not get deathly ill? A few months before Malle arrived to shoot this sequence, he notes in his narration that hundreds of people became severely infected from contact with the water yet they continue to come and bath there because it is a holy river. Tradition and an unshakeable belief in their faith dictates so much of what transpires in this culture.

Men bathing in the sacred waters of the Ganges River is one of several key sequences featured in Calcutta, a 1969 documentary by Louis Malle

Phantom India, like Calcutta, occasionally crosses over into Mondo Cane territory and surpasses it with shocking scenes that hit harder because they are obviously not staged. Case in point, a sequence in episode two that shows a dead buffalo being slowly picked apart by a sea of vultures. Some of the birds of prey work on the eye sockets, greedily inserting their beaks to get that last morsel of tissue while others fight over the decaying anus cavity. 

A scene from Louis Malle’s epic 7 episode documentary Phantom India (1969).

In another sequence we watch as a yogi moves slowly through a crowd encased in a huge steel cage fitted with hundreds of needles that pierce his skin and some steel rods that skewer his tongue, groin, back and other areas. While the narrator explains that it is an ascetic exercise that renounces the physical world by its cathartic nature, the scene would give pause to the most extreme sideshow blockhead.

A teeming crowd provides the manpower needed to support a massive festival float in a celebration in Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary Phantom India.

The exotic sights continue in Calcutta and Phantom India as Malle and his tiny crew capture a celebration at Kapaleshvara where hundreds of people move a mammoth float weighing tons around the city in a five hour procession that makes rolling a boulder up a hill look easy. We see a street circus where some of the acrobats are mere children including the star attraction, a little girl who is swung from a tall pole by a rope around her waist. And we get a glimpse of the Bollywood movie factory in Madras where they are filming the melodrama Thillana Mohanambal starring Sivaji Ganeshan, referred to as the “Jean-Paul Belmondo of India.”

A scene from the 7 part documentary epic Phantom India (1969), directed by Louis Malle.

Whether we are in the city or the rural countryside, Malle never misses an opportunity to film the people they meet along the way, including the many beggars and holy men they pass on the roads. Begging, in particular, is regarded quite differently here. No one seems to be walking away from the outstretched hands in disdain or calling out “Get a job!” because in this country begging is their job. It’s what they were fated to do. There is one amazing sequence where a priest works his way down an endless line of beggars on the side of the road, carefully counting out his alms to make sure he has something for each one, which brings to mind this question. How many alms do you need to carry on you each day as you travel through your world? What happens if you run out?

A scene from Phantom India (1969), a 7-episode documentary epic by French filmmaker Louis Malle.

Amid all of the chaos and clamor on display, however, are moments of bucolic serenity and stunning beauty: a visit to the Kalak-Shetra Dance School where young female dancers are trained in “the choreographic tradition in the South,” a private moment observed by Malle’s cameraman of an affectionate teenage couple (public displays of physical attraction between the sexes is not something you are likely to see often in this culture), colorful scenes of rural peasant life where women prepare chapatis or work their spinning wheels or cut mustard weed for animal feed.

A scene from the epic 1969 documentary Phantom India, directed by Louis Malle.

Even if Malle occasionally presents something that wouldn’t be out of place in a travelogue, you are always aware that this is not a standard documentary because he is constantly questioning what he is seeing. His rambling thoughts can sound a bit self-absorbed from time to time as he ponders the effect his movie might be having on the people he is filming. But, for the most part, his response to what he encounters mirrors your own bafflement or fascination. 

Filmmaker Louis Malle rides an elephant while filming his documentary epic Phantom India in 1969.

In an interview, Malle recalled that while making these documentaries in India, “we acquired a different perception of time. For the first time in my life I found some kind of peace. I started letting go…There was something about the relationship of Indians to nature that I felt was so organic and so true…It’s been like a big hunk of my life. It was enormously important for me, and I’m still trying to make sense of it today.”

A colorful array of religious statues and iconography are glimpsed in Louis Malle’s epic 1969 documentary Phantom India.

I’m still trying to make sense of it as well and I wonder if Malle had lived long enough, would he have gone back to India to film a follow up to his 1969 travels? It would have been fascinating to see this series treated in the manner of Michael Apted’s 49 Up series from 2005. What happened to the American Peace Corps worker we met who was trying to introduce new farming methods to rural villagers? What became of the deformed leper we encountered on the streets of Calcutta? Where did the two French hippies end up in their search for enlightenment? What became of the Bandos, a fringe Indian group that slaughtered and feasted on cattle (a rare practice in a country where cows are sacred)?

A scene from the 1969 documentary Calcutta, directed by French filmmaker Louis Malle.

You’re bound to wonder about all of the people that pass before Malle’s camera as you watch Calcutta and Phantom India. It also makes you wonder how much more extreme the living conditions have become since 1969 when India’s population was much less than it is today – the current number is over 1,389,000,000 billion, according to most demographic records. 

A scene from Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary Calcutta, available from The Criterion Collection.

Eclipse Series 2: The Documentaries of Louis Malle is still available as a DVD set from The Criterion Collection. It seems unlikely that it will be remastered on Blu-ray any time soon but at least it exists and offers an invaluable look at the non-fiction films of a great French director.

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