Sir Barken Hyena writes:
I watched this series from French director Louis Malle back-to-back the other day, it’s that good. In the late 60’s, Malle spent 5 months motoring around the vast backwaters of India in search of what spontaneous cinema verite gold he could find. India obliged, with it’s usual extravagance. The film overflows with unforgettable, yet wholly mundane images. Compiled into seven themed episodes, Phantom India is a worthy addition to the literature on fraught relations between East and West, from Kipling through Conrad, to Bowles, Chris Marker and Rushdie.
Malle was the usual muddle-headed Marxist of his era, and the narration provides far too many forehead slapping moments. Yet, because he’s also a true artist of vision, this only adds to the film’s value. Malle himself is quite aware that he can’t grasp what he is seeing, and has no choice but to take it all in as a Westerner, and an intellectual. He makes this struggle a recurring theme.
Time and again, the visuals subtly belie his analysis. Speaking of economic misery, the images are of villagers riotously celebrating a festival, or singing and smiling while toiling in their fields. While miserable statistics on malnutrition stream by, young men with physiques a metrosexual would die for wrestle in a dirt field. They look better than he does! Sure they are old at 40 but they leave good looking corpses. Too bad they burn them up.
Thankfully this sort of thing is not the whole show. Many fine moments are wisely left to speak for themselves. It’s the faces that amaze the most, and the camera lingers and stares while they stare back. We see the gulf that separates, but the humanity that connects. And, the crew being French, they are adept at finding what’s most beautiful to film.
Malle isn’t insensitive to the consolations religion brings them, though he can’t help seeing it as exploitation. In fact, he sees just about everything in those terms, with the usual Commie blindness and platitudes. In one scene, a caste of fishermen bargain with a city slicker on a bike who buys their catch to sell in town. An epic battle ensues, with one feisty crone clearly loving getting in his face. But in the end, the cash changes hands and he peddles off with his baskets of fish, and no doubt the same scene will play out the next day, and forever. This is the “exploitation of man by his fellow man”, yet it never crosses his mind that the fishers could pool their money, get their own damn bike and send Mr Middleman packing. Doubtless it never occurred to them either.
I am simplifying as much as Malle. Perhaps the fishers couldn’t sell in the market due to caste restrictions; I don’t know. A touching interview with a pair of fresh faced hippies gives one possible answer: the Indians don’t care about having more, just enough. When they get it, they stop working. That’s a kind of exploitation some Westerners I know might like.
And here is the heart of the paradox: they themselves accept quite easily their position in life. It’s we who can’t allow it. They themselves have resisted change at every turn. They know what they like, it’s what they already are. It’s an automatic assumption of Westerners that all humanity is our business, when all through our colonial imperialist adventures nothing has been wanted from the world except for us to butt out. The “false consciousness”, is our own. Maybe one day world peace will come, when we let it.