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Louis Malle’s Phantom India

April 5, 2010

Louis Malle was a French nouvelle vague filmmaker who went to India in 1968, and spent four months there with two crew members, shooting about 30 hours of footage. This was edited down to a 378-minute documentary called L’Inde Fantome in French and Phantom India in English. The film was controversial in its time. When the BBC screened it in 1969, the irate Indian government banned them from filming in India for several years.

Watching clips from this magnum opus on youtube.com, 41 years later, I find it difficult to discover what exactly was so objectionable.

This clip, filmed a few minutes away from my grandmother’s home in Madras, is beautifully evocative in that special French new wave way. There is just something about that framing and that gravelly voice-over that makes it seem so incredibly close-to-life. Here’s another clip, this time about the caste system.

Aah, here we are on more contentious ground. Comparing the caste system in India to race relations in the Southern United States would not have gone down well.

And yet, there isn’t much that’s falsified in these clips. Judging from those women’s clothes, this clip was probably filmed in Haryana or thereabouts, maybe even in Rajasthan. The scenes are so generic that all I can say is, la plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose!

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