Phantom India, Episode 2: "Things Seen in Madras" - Louis Malle

Episode 2 of Phantom India focusses on what Malle encountered in the south Indian city of Madras (Chennai). There are five main sections, three of which attempt to come to grips with the local Tamil culture, while the last section is an extended contemplation of Indian dance culture.

1. The Hindu Festival
An annual Hindu festival near the Kapaleeshwar Temple on the outskirts of the southern city of Madras (Chennai) features the parade of a truly gigantic (several stories high) ceremonial cart that is slowly pulled by the faithful around the streets outside the temple. The crudely-built cart, which seems to be centuries old, is heavily festooned with garlands and flowers, and it transports priests who appear to be giving their blessings along the way. Malle and his crew cannot fathom the religious significance of the ceremony, but they are caught up in the five-hour spectacle, which is a combination of devotion to the gods and joyous ceremony. This section is a memorable visual display of the Indian people on the street completely engaged in the joys of the festival.

We perhaps need to be reminded that "Hinduism" is a term invented by the British in the 19th century to describe the various religious practices that they encountered when they came to and ruled India. The term suggests a homogeneous religion, but the multifarious practices included under this rubric are far from a unified religion with a universally ordained code. In each part of India the religious practices are a syncretic mixture of various individual religious traditions that were brought into the area over long historical periods. Some of the practices related to the original South Indian people, others come from the Vedas, which come from the Aryan people who invaded in the second millennium and ultimately partially interbred with the indigenous population [1]. The syncretisms even involve, in some parts of India, a merging of Islamic and Hindu myths and practices, although more recent efforts to globalize and standardize religious movements have led to a reduction of these syncretisms and a corresponding increase in communal tensions in a society that has up to now been amazingly tolerant of heterodox practices for centuries.

2. The Tamil-speaking People
The narrative returns to a more conventional documentary format, as Malle covers aspects of the Tamil-speaking people who live in this part of India. The Tamils feel that they are the preservers of the original Indian culture and have maintained its purity in the face of countless invasions from the outside, including the aforesaid Aryan. But Tamils feel they are politically disadvantaged by the more numerically numerous Hindi-speaking sector, which has established Hindi as a national language and tends to dominate the national culture. Thus the lighter-skinned (by virtue of the long-ago Aryan penetration) northern Indians even dominate the standards of beauty: despite the natural dark-eyed charm of the Tamils, their darker complexions are viewed with less favour aesthetically. Language is a particular sore point: the Tamils would prefer to have English as the soul national language, so that then each ethnic sector would be required to learn only one additional language. As it stands, Tamils must learn two: English and Hindi. Actually, if we go back a century or two, we would find that the Dravidian and Aryan languages were so numerous and varied (outside the royal courts and upperclass manors) that if one were to walk some fifty kilometres from his or her own district, he would come into an area where the dialect was essentially a distinctly different language. It is only in more recent times, when movement has been made easier, that even regional languages have become more standardized.

3. Family Planning
Malle covers the Indian government’s strenuous, but only partially successful, efforts to curb the vast Indian population. For the most part, these efforts have avoided coercion [2], so the government (in Madras, at least) pursued highly aggressive advertising techniques to explain how birth control methods work and convince a sceptical population to adopt them voluntarily. What is interesting here is that, despite the conservative familial culture in India, these advertisements are considerably more explicit than would normally be seen in the West.

4. Tamil Films
The Indian film industry has always been a mainstay of the popular culture, and in fact there have long been separate film industries associated with the various regional languages. The Tamil film industry is one of the most robust, having been active for over 75 years and producing about a hundred films annually. Although Tamil stage-theatre themes can often be oriented about Tamil political issues, Tamil films are almost always highly melodramatic romances and almost invariably feature lots of singing and dancing. These facts are not too surprising, but Malle finds it curious that the cinema actors are usually short, pudgy, and thick-featured – in stark contrast to the usually delicate and comely features of the Tamil people on the street. Although the "well-fed" look is associated with prosperity and is more highly-valued in India than in the West, Malle was still surprised to see how far the Indian Tamil actors were from our normal standards of beauty. In addition, the actors, both men and women, cover themselves with ugly thick, pink makeup in order to lighten their complexions and conform to the northern standards of beauty. The result, at least in 1968, is more of a cartoon than a believable story. But the local people love it.

5. Native Dance
The last half of this episode dwells on Bharatanatyam dancers at the local Kalkashetra conservatory. The Bharatanatyam dance, Malle tells us, is a mystical language, a cultural code, that is inaccessible to Westerners. Girls must train 10-20 years in the stylized practice, until each specific hand and foot gesture is a natural part of their physical movements. Westerners, as Malle shows, are hopelessly unable to penetrate the mystical core of this art: the girls who manage to gain full entrance to this artistic realm come to embody a mind-body spiritual dimension that is breathtaking to watch, even as we only understand a fraction of it. Malle is particularly poetic here:
"The gestures are a prayer, an invocation. The dance is one of the yogas, meaning a path to transcendence, a bridge between here and the beyond."
Clearly Malle was bewitched by the dancers, as was I watching it. He knows, inside, that he is romanticising the images from his own ideals, but he cannot resist the allure.
"This grace, this beauty, this perfect harmony of body and mind is like the idealized vision of India, one that is so rarely encountered that I questioned if it really existed. This is India: a worldview we don’t understand, a social hierarchy that puzzles us, an economic reality that shocks us, but also the hesitant fragile grace of two girls conversing with God."

  1. There are disagreements among scholars concerning the approximate dates that this "invasion" occurred and the degree to which it involved a significant population migration or was actually more of a cultural invasion. See, for example,
  2. Readers of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, will be familiar with reputed heavy-handed instances of peasants being duped or forced into sterilization during the Emergency (1975-77).

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