15 February 2009

Phantom India

When I was in Europe last summer, I came across a collection of documentaries by the French filmmaker Louis Malle called ‘L’Inde Fantôme’ or 'Phantom India'. This collection of eight documentary films were made in the late 1960s. They offer a fascinating glimpse into different aspects of Indian life and society at the time. What strikes me watching them 40 years later, is how much India has changed and how some things haven’t changed at all.

Malle filmed this series of short films as a detached observer, offering the spectator glimpses into moments frozen in time. At times he runs a commentary on certain aspects of Indian society, but most of the scenes have no dialogue – they are just short glimpses of different scenes he comes across:

  • A wedding party procession in a rural village. They spot the 3 foreigners with a camera and stop in their tracks. They silently observe them for a few long moments and then continue on their way.

  • A demonstration by post office employees in Kerala.

  • Women drawing kolams on their doorsteps.

  • Vultures devouring an animal carcass.

  • The temple of Konark where they meet two French hippie travellers who travelled overland to India without money, luggage or real direction.

  • Manual workers making bricks or working on a construction site.

  • The rituals you see in a temple performed by priests and devotees.

  • I was also interested to see dance classes going on at Kalakshetra in Madras, when it was still on the grounds of the Theosophical Society and the clips of BKS Iyengar teaching yoga in Bombay.

Phantom India was broadcast by the BBC in the early 1970s. The Indian government was outraged by the film and demanded that they be taken off the air. When this didn’t happen, the BBC was banned from India for many years. Why such outrage? Maybe for the same reasons as some of the reactions to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Malle had captured India as it was (at the time), filming instinctively and without judgement whenever something interesting caught his eye. The footage of the slums of Calcutta and Mumbai and the lepers’ colony in Calcutta did not seem to please the Indian government. The hierarchy of the caste system is a theme he picked up on repeatedly as well as the ‘westernization’ of India.

There are some clips of the film on YouTube:


Unknown said...

Interesting! Thank you for the youtube links :-)
Oh well - things change yet they remain the same ... guess that is so everywhere, including India ... and that makes one ponder over coexisting dichotomies that are present all through existence ... I better stop before I ramble ... :-)

Anonymous said...

The B'tyam dancer is the very famous actress Hema Malini.
The actress in the movie shooting is Padmini,a very very great Btyam dancer first,then an actress.

Isabel said...

Hi Shubha!

I was wondering who that dancer was and had no idea it was Hema Malini. I didn't recognize her at all. She must be not older than 20 in that clip!

Drifting Thoughts said...

ya,and the actress Padmini is the beautiful dancer Shobhana's aunt.