Phantom India, Episode 5: “A Look at Castes” - Louis Malle

Throughout Phantom India, writer-director Louis Malle shows his awareness of the tension between two conflicting approaches towards encountering Indian culture. On the one hand one must situate what one sees within the critical categories of Western thought; and on the other hand, one must be open and receptive to things that go beyond our reflective categories. In this connection in Episode 4, Malle’s reflections took a swing towards the critical side, and the bias to this side is continued further in Episode 5, where the subject of the Indian caste system is brought to the fore.

This episode focusses on life in the traditional villages, where Malle has been told that you can find the essence of what India is about. To be sure, he tells us, despite a number of big urban areas, 80% of the Indian population resides in rural villages [1], and so he and his crew have gone to a village in Haryana province, just to the north of Delhi, to film the local inhabitants. At the outset Malle interviews an American Peace Corps volunteer who has come to an Indian village to introduce modern farming techniques to the local population. He is trying to bridge the gap between the modern West and the traditional East and hoping that Western technology can make a positive contribution to life in the villages. But, of course, this is an enormous challenge to effect significant changes: there were only 700 such Peace Corps volunteers and over 560,000 Indian villages [2].

Initially, Malle finds the people in the Haryana village living according to simple practices and routines that have probably been unchanged for centuries. He observes that the people there live collectively in town, not on the farms where they work. The women always cover their faces with veils when unfamiliar men are present. Almost everyone is vegetarian, and he films women spending hours each day making their daily staple: chapati bread. One thing that surprises him is the usefulness to village life of cow dung. In a country with little remaining forest for firewood, cow dung, instead of being used for fertilizer, is used as a slow-burning fuel.

But after settling down and watching the villagers engaged in their mundane routines, Malle starts to notice interesting patterns that were not initially evident to him. In this village of 2,000 inhabitants, there are over twenty water wells (where two or three would have sufficed), and the same village women whose traditional job it is to fetch water always gather water from the same specific wells. What he has discovered, without being told, is that the village has a separate well for each caste, and only members of a particular caste can draw water from any given well. The remainder of this episode is then an extended exploration of how this peculiar (to Westerners) institution, the Indian social caste system, operates in the local village arena.

Generally speaking, caste systems can be said to exist in many places in the world, but the Indian caste system is extreme, which makes it a particular subject of curiosity to outsiders. For various reasons, perhaps because outsiders approach the subject with disparaging prejudgments, Malle observes that Westernized Indians avoid discussing the topic altogether. But other Indians don’t discuss the subject much, either – the local villagers that Malle encounters don’t mention it, because the nature of the system is merely an accustomed and accepted part of the social fabric. To them it is just the way things are and have always been. Even the English speakers among the local villagers don’t know how to explain “pariah”, “caste”, and “untouchable”, since those words seem to have no meaning for them in their native tongue.

Of course we know that many Indians have long been critical of the caste system. The Buddhists, Jains, Ajivikas, Muslims, and Christians in India have traditionally condemned the caste system as an anathema. And Asoka, the Buddhist monarch who reigned over the vast Mauryan Empire in the 3rd Century BCE, was one of several rulers in Indian history who outlawed or discouraged the caste system. Gandhi was opposed to the caste system, and the Indian Constitution in 1950 explicitly outlawed caste-based discrimination. Yet still the system has stubbornly persisted over the millennia and continues to dominate rural India today. Why it endures so unrelentingly is still somewhat mysterious.

The nature and origins of the Indian caste system are obscure. Westerners are taught that there are four principal varnas: Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaisyas (merchants, herders, and cultivators), and Shudras (laborers). But of course it is much more complicated than just those four classifications, with multiple gradations and variations across India, plus thousands of sub-castes (jatis) [3]. The origins of this system and how it came about are also obscure. The ancient Aryans of Greece, Iran, and the Caucasus had, it is true, three principal classes corresponding to warriors, priests, and farmers. So an early assumption was that the caste system in India was introduced by the Aryan invaders [4], who simply classified the native Dravidian people as the lowest class, the Shudras, below the three Aryan classes. But more recent research suggests that the Dravidian people had a well-developed caste system before the Aryans invaded. From this account it would seem that the existing Dravidian caste system was simply adopted by the Aryan invaders, who then placed themselves at the top of it [5].

Going beyond these general and categorical speculations, we have Malle and his cameraman on the ground in the local village making specific observations concerning Indian castes. Malle can see no obvious physical differences across the classes [6], yet the class-specific differences in behaviour, learned from birth, are marked. He pointedly notes the occasion when a village child asked him if he were American. When Malle indicated he was not, the child responded by asking him, “then what caste are you?” To Malle it was clear from those two questions that caste was a mechanism for identifying one’s basic nature and thereby marked essential boundaries of separation

Upon reflection we might presume that there may have been some real social utility to the caste system in ancient times. Originally, it may have functioned like the professional guilds in medieval Europe. Even outside the scope of identifying an occupational grouping, the caste system could have been used as a social-networking tagging system to create artificial brotherhoods. Such brotherhoods can conceivably foster the adoption of social norms and cooperative standards of behaviour that can bring benefits to the group as a whole. Along these lines Malle wonders if in past times the caste system could have indeed once provided a useful system of balanced, interlocked functions and rewards in the village society. Then, maybe, but not today. Now, with the rigidity of the caste boundaries and the landowners owning everything, the caste system is simply a ruthless instrument of oppression. In fact now the caste system may actually be a significant impediment to a well functioning democracy, since castes are becoming ever more rigid, isolated, and locked in mutual opposition, rather than forming an interlinked fabric.

We know, of course, that however the caste system may have originally been influenced by utilitarian and economic considerations, it has long been more than simply a set of occupational groupings or a tagging system, and it has always been part of the Brahmanical religion (Hinduism). It functions primarily in that context as a hierarchical system of privilege, based on presumed purity. The less pure one is, the less fit he is even to come in contact with those of the higher castes. An example of such a lower-level caste is the dhobis. These are people who wash clothes, including underclothes, which is an operation unsuitable for the higher caste wives, who have a more elevated level of recognized purity. In all the villages, clothes cleaning (performed laboriously, without the use of soap or detergent) is undertaken by the dhobis, and even in the big cities the clothes cleaning businesses are manned by dhobi manual laborers.

The lowest classes are the Untouchables, those unsuitable to be touched by the upper castes. But even lower are the tribal people that Malle observes. They are not even allowed to enter the village, and their state is even worse than the Untouchables – they are outcastes, standing completely outside the system. These severely disadvantaged classes are not at all a small segment of Indian society – the scheduled castes (loosely, the Untouchables), scheduled tribes, and other backward classes may make up more than 30% of the population [7].

Yet all these lower castes do not protest such daily denials of basic human rights, because they do not see all people to be of fundamental equal worthiness. The ritually pure have essential superiority. This is supported by the Hindu system of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls), which instructs the followers that there is an eternal cycle of rebirths. After death a person will be reborn to a new state in the world based on the merits of his or her past life. If one is born into a lower caste, then it is simply one’s own fault. The only way to rise to higher levels is to accept dutifully one’s position and not complain. Because one always has another chance to make things better in the next life, Indian funerals, Malle observes, are not such sad occasions as they are in Western societies.

Since the schoolteachers are customarily Brahman, the education system at the local village level is operated by people who have a stake in the existing system and are unlikely to call attention to its inequities. This is the way that class stratification persists the world over. At the end of this episode, Malle observes a further example of small-town corruption when he witnesses a panchayat, which is a local village council that has the appearance of a town-hall meeting and which adjudicates a village dispute. Although the law requires the presence of a woman and an Untouchable on the panchayat board, they are said to be “absent” from the day’s meeting that Malle witnesses. As Malle watches how the local landlords and proprietors stage-manage the proceedings, he concludes dismally that the panchayat is, just like the caste system, simply another instrument of oppression for the benefit of the local privileged classes.

At the beginning of this episode, Malle was worried that he was directing the villagers to play roles for his camera that would not be natural and authentic. So he finally stopped telling them not to look at the camera and just let them behave as they wished, without instruction. Later, though, he decided that the people were still stage-directing themselves, artificially, in order to play what they imagined would be a good role for the camera. For example the villagers put on a local music performance for the filmmakers, using musical instruments that they had not used for a long time. The whole proceeding was, for Malle, false and not really authentic. But by the time we reach the end of the episode, Malle has come to an even more dismal conclusion about authentic behaviour. He realizes that the social rules of the caste system are perpetually forcing the people to play artificial roles (for the Brahmanical gods watching) throughout their lives.
These roles are forced on them by a system of beliefs that perpetuates the oppression.

Finally, Malle reflects on that Peace Corps worker he interviewed at the beginning of the episode. What is needed for Indian rural society, he concludes, is not the introduction of modern technology and tools, but a fundamentally transformed mindset about nature and society. Given the ingrained and enduring nature of India’s cultural traditions over the centuries, this would be a vastly more difficult task.

  1. The 2001 census indicated that the rural Indian population was 73%.
  2. The 2001 Indian census indicated that there were about 640,000 villages in India.
  3. See, for example, A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, (1959), Grove Press, NY, pp. 147-151.
  4. There are disagreements among scholars concerning whether this "invasion" involved a significant population migration or was actually more of a cultural invasion. See, for example,
  5. G.S. Mudur, "Caste in the genes". The Telegraph, (1 January 2001) Calcutta.
  6. Indeed, studies have shown that there are essentially no characteristic genetic differences across the castes, cf. Kivisild, T.; S. Rootsi, M. Metspalu, S. Mastana, K. Kaldma, J. Parik, E. Metspalu, M. Adojaan, H.-V. Tolk, V. Stepanov, M. Gölge, E. Usanga, S. S. Papiha, C. Cinnioglu, R. King, L. Cavalli-Sforza, P. A. Underhill, and R. Villems (February 2003). "The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations", American Journal of Human Genetics 72 (2): 313–332,

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