Phantom India / L'Inde fantôme
(Louis Malle, France, 1969, 35mm>BetaSP, 378 min.)
It was enormously important for me, and I'm still trying to make sense of it today.
-- Louis Malle on Phantom India
To quote Sir Tom Jones, it's not unusual...for me to see a couple dozen French films a year. Along the way, I've managed to overlook Louis Malle. Well, almost. British-French co-production Damage (1992) was the first Malle film I ever saw. It wasn't a completely satisfying experience, but I was intrigued and have been working my way backwards since: My Dinner With Andre (1981), Atlantic City (1980), Elevator to the Gallows (1957), and now seven-part television series Phantom India (1969). The more I see, the more I want to see.
Clearly, there are many gaps yet to be filled, and I can't compare Phantom India to Malle's other documentaries. Fortunately, the Northwest Film Forum will also be screening the Oscar and Palme d'Or-winning The Silent World with Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1956), Human, Too Human (1974), and the short Vive Le Tour (1962). If I were so inclined, I could compare Phantom India, subtitled Reflections on a Journey, to Malle's features vis-à-vis Werner Herzog's fiction and non-fiction films, except I didn't detect any obvious similarities.
In the press notes, Malle explains, "India was impossible to understand for a foreigner--it was so opaque--yet I was so completely fascinated by it." In 1990, when speaking with Kristine McKenna (Book of Changes), he noted, "One of my great pleasures in life is just to be in a crowd, to observe people and see behaviors, the little details in the way people dress and move their hands." Both traits--the ability to observe, the inability to understand "The Other"--are on full display in Phantom India, which Malle narrates in the first-person.
[My book club just finished reading Norman Mailer's third person-narrated The Fight (1975) about the "Rumble in the Jungle." At times, Malle's subjective approach comes close to Mailer's, i.e. "But his love affair with the Black soul, a sentimental orgy at its worst, had been given a drubbing through the seasons of Black Power. He no longer knew whether he loved Blacks or secretly disliked them, which had been the dirtiest secret in his American life."]
Originally broadcast on French TV, the shoot was a bare-bones affair: Malle, cinematographer Étienne Becker (son of Jacques), and soundman Jean-Claude Laureux. The three travelled to Mysore, Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), and other cities, mostly in the South. They shot for four months, then Malle spent a year editing the footage in France. With the exception of Bombay, the trio was often met with curiosity, suspicion--mistrust. Outright hostility was in short supply, but they were rarely welcomed with open arms.
This reception affects the tone of the series. Phantom India isn't exactly pessimistic or judgmental, but it is critical--and sympathetic at the same time. As David Thomson points out, in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, "[Malle's] Indian documentaries...showed his visual elegance but offended many Indians with their superficial criticism of the country."
In her review of Human, Too Human, B. Ruby Rich adds that, "Malle [through his Phantom India narration] constantly revealed a sincere but naive liberalism that couldn't compensate for his lack of depth and characteristic 'tourist' attitude. He applied a French cultural perspective to the Indian situation so that his socialist comments often seemed grafted on to an erroneous view of Indian culture."
I would argue that Malle goes beyond the superficial and the tourist, but I can see why some Indians were offended (in Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia, he notes that "the Indian government protested to no avail"). Malle is more interested in the poor than the powerful--he's harder on the latter, as well. They include left-wing intellectuals, fascist firebrands (who would like to relocate all Muslims to Pakistan), and empty-headed Westerners seeking enlightenment.
Malle would rather spend time with the peaceful Toda people, who believe in poetry and polygamy (and it's the women who take the multiple mates)--and face extinction as India becomes increasingly industrialized. To him, they represent the country at its best. They may not be more "knowable" than the other Indians he encounters, but they seem more open and welcoming.
Throughout the series, Malle becomes quiet whenever he encounters something of particular interest: A peasant rolling chapati bread, two girls practicing the Bharatanatyam (a classical dance that takes years to master), a group of pilgrims pushing an overloaded shrine, vultures feasting on a fallen bison (they reminded me of the bloodsuckers in Interview With the Vampire). Becker's camera is rarely stationary, but these sequences all last for several minutes.
These patient passages lend Phantom India a meditative, "un-Western" quality, although some viewers may find Malle's refusal to cut more exasperating than not. In that case, feature-length documentary Calcutta (1969) may better meet their needs. (Unfortunately, it isn't part of the NWFF's Malle tribute.) Although my mind did wander on occasion--I watched the series in one almost-seven-hour block--it's these mesmerizing images that have stayed with me.
Note: Released in France last year, the Criterion Collection will be issuing this series in the US (but don't hold your breath for that to happen this year).
In French and Hindi with English subtitles, Phantom India plays at the Northwest Film Forum April 7-9, Fri. at 7pm (Part 1), Sat. at 7pm (Part 2), and Sun. at 4 (Part 1) and 7pm (Part 2). Part one (162 min.) includes "The Impossible Camera," "Things Seen in Madras," and "The Indians and the Sacred" and two (216 min.) includes "Dreams and Realities," "A Look at Castes," "On the Fringes of Indian Society," and "Bombay-The Future of India." Click here for more information on The Other Louis Malle. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave., on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine.