Throughout the episodes of Phantom India, writer-director Louis Malle reveals himself to be caught in a dialectic: the conflict between what his critical, rational mind understands (and ultimately condemns) and what his intuitive side vaguely senses (and wishes to embrace): the contrasting perspectives of material poverty and Indian spiritual tranquillity. This is perhaps a reflection of the eternal French conflict between the Classical and the Romantic way of thinking. In Episode 3 in Madras, Malle’s mental perspective gradually swung from initial rejection of Indian customs over to a sympathy for a mysterious and profoundly different way of being that exists in India. In Episode 4, though, Malle’s mind keeps swinging back the other way: his critical mind interrupts his romantic reveries and we feel an invisible frown returning to the narrator’s brow.
By now, Malle has moved across the south of India, from the Coromandel of the southwest coast to the Malabar coast on the southeastern side. The narrative of this episode drifts through four sections, each one starting off with dreamy appearances about a particular activity, followed by the narrator’s calling our attention to the less pleasant “reality” of that subject.
1 A Different Way of Life
Malle begins by pursuing further his desire to sink into the native Indian way of liiving, to experience life the way they do and according to their rhythms. He and his crew became vegetarians, because noone eats meet in that area. He says he wanted to experience things now, not understand them. There are repeated images of the Indian countryside, seen as an idyllic, slow-moving paradise. In a an area where no month of the year has an average high temperature less than 29 degrees Celsius, there is a prevailing languorous mood that dominates life, especially in the afternoon. Malle's remarks here are as timely today as they were forty years ago:
“If happiness is defined as a sense of balance and bliss, being in harmony with one’s surroundings, interior peace, then these Indian peasants are happier than us, who have destroyed nature, and do battle with time in the absurd pursuit of material well-being.”They arrive at Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) Kerala, where they film in this urban environment a huge tree filled with bats. To these Europeans visitors, the bats, with their one-metre wing spans, look ghoulish, but the Indians there pay these creatures no mind – noone shoos the bats away, they are simply accepted as part of nature. “Respect for life in all forms is a constant in India,” Malle observes.
But the dreamy imagery is interrupted by a return to “reality”. He encounters a train wreck and comments about the British-built train system. Though it was used to implement colonialism, the train system is still the stalwart of the Indian transportation system and retains a vast bureaucracy that was established by the British. Afterwards Malle moves to a tea plantation, also operated by a British corporation. The women who do the tea leaf picking are paid meagre salaries, and though they are happy to have the jobs, Malle characterises their work as a harsh form of neocolonialism.
2 Wildlife and Fishing
The three-man team visit a wildlife park and again idyllic images of grazing elephants fill the screen, but Malle points out that this is a fake reality, created for tourists. In truth, elephants in the wild have vanished, and the only ones left are employed as draft animals. He shows an elephant working in a timber mill, which is part of the slash-and-burn economy that is rapidly destroying the elephants’ few remaining natural habitats. He sees a tame tiger in a Mysore zoo, and learns that there are almost no tigers left in India. The last ones are being hunted down in “gentlemen’s safaris”, where a wealthy customer can have two hundred beaters provided in order to secure a kill, and even have the wild tiger drugged in order to make it an easier prey.
The filmmakers observe huge fishing nets permanently hoist-mounted in the harbour in Cochin (Kochi). Though picturesque, Malle observes here, too, that the workers manning the hoist pulleys are overworked, and the daily catch is paltry.
Again Malle returns to the dreamy side of things: the bucolic waterways and lagoons of Kerala provide the backdrop for his commentary on that state. It has the highest literacy rate in India (over 90%) and a tradition of religious tolerance: roughly half the people are Hindus, a quarter are Muslim, and another quarter are Christians. The Christian community is longstanding, and tradition traces it back to a visit of St. Thomas, the Apostle. Set against this dreamy imagery is the reality that the area is overpopulated and poor (although Kerala has had improved fortunes over the course of the last forty years). As in China, much of the skilled handwork performed in the primitive factories is done by women, who work for minimal wages.
The final segment in this episode is, appropriately enough both for someone of Malle’s leftist sympathies and for the dialectical structure of the narrative, devoted to the subject of Indian Marxism. Kerala was the appropriate place to take up this subject, because of a remarkable feature: it had one of the few democratically-elected Communist governments in the world.
At this time, in 1968-69, the prospects of India’s democratically-elected government system were still a subject of speculation. Elsewhere, Vietnam was in the throes of a violent, peasant-led Communist revolution, and China was plunging into the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution. How could a country like India, with so many ethnic groups, so many languages, and with such a low overall literacy rate, possibly survive as a democracy? Surely the international communist movement would make progress there eventually. As it happened, in 1967 the Indian Communist Party had just divided into two factions, the Left Communists and the Right Communists, a split occasioned by the question of whether the communists should form a coalition with the ruling Congress Party (the Left Communists refused to do this). But as we see here, neither of these two factions turned out to be sufficiently radical for Malle’s tastes.
As we learn from Malle’s interview, the Left Communist Prime Minister of Kerala, E. M. S. Namboodiripad was, despite his supposedly radical credentials, governing in a highly pragmatic fashion. Namboodiripad was faced with a difficult political dilemma – he needed to attract capitalist businessmen to Kerala in order to spurt the economy, and at the same time his party constituency prevented him from opposing or condemning industrial strikes. Nevertheless, he managed to introduce radical reforms that appear to have been successful in elevating the conditions of the local farmers and labourers. Unlike revolutionary firebrands in other parts of the world, Namboodiripad worked in coalition with many seemingly conflicting groups and sectors in order to progress his program. This was democracy, not revolution, at work. Another Left Communist leader interviewed, Gopal, tells Malle that a Maoist-style revolution wouldn’t work in India. Malle’s voiceover narration in response to such comments, however, suggests disappointment with such pragmatism, as if Indian Communists lacked the courage and vision to make the radical moves necessary to transform a feudal society. In this case Malle's dream is radical social change, and the disappointing reality, for him, is the compromising behavior of the radicals.
Meanwhile, across India in West Bengal, the radical Naxalite Communist uprising was being launched. This violent and openly Maoist peasant movement sought armed insurrection, but it was firmly opposed by the mainstream Indian Communists, who preferred to effect change by working within the existing political system – the Communists in Kerala preferred a parliamentary democracy to chaos and violence. After a few more interviews, Malle concludes, almost disconsolately, that “the orthodox Communists don’t really want a peasant-style revolution.”
As the images of a pensive female dancer fills the screen at the close of Episode 4, Kerala’s contradictions between dream and reality have left Malle in a similarly melancholy state. But the viewer may perhaps agree with me that a more hopeful conclusion can be drawn from the same material – that the depth and substance of Indian culture is too vast to succumb to Naxalite nihilism.