In 1968 Louis Malle’s career was at a turning point, and he took a timeout to travel to India and think about larger issues in his life. The still-young director had been something of a wunderkind in French cinema, having shared a Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or at the age of 23, worked as an assistant to Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped (Un Condamné À Mort S'est Échappé Ou Le Vent Souffle Où Il Veut, 1956), and scored several other hits and international prizes, But he was just coming off a marital breakup and a questionable outing with Le Voleur (The Thief of Paris, 1967), and he needed a break to think things over. The initially planned short trip to India turned into a two-month sojourn and led to a greater fascination with the country and culture. He returned with a cameraman and sound recordist for five months on his own personal budget to film his six-hour documentary series, Phantom India (L'Inde Fantôme, 1969). It took him a year to edit the 30 hours of original footage that was ultimately released as a television series in seven episodes. Though Malle is mostly known today for his feature films in France and later in the United States, I believe that Phantom India was his greatest work, and he, himself, asserted that the work was his own personal favourite of all his films.
Phantom India was very much in the cinéma vérité tradition that first flourished in the 1960s when the appearance of lightweight film cameras made possible the capturing of “real life” activities in the practical affairs of society. But cinéma vérité in its early European manifestation was distinguished from its counterpart in North America, known as “direct cinema”, which tried to capture “objective” reality by attempting to make the cinematographers invisible. Cinéma vérité filmmakers, in contrast to that, tended to acknowledge explicitly the presence of the fimmaker and his or her involvement in the processes under study. This, in my, view is the more realistic approach and is likely to lead to a more accurately captured “reality” on film. Whatever is captured on film is inevitably altered by the presence of the watcher, and in addition the choice of camera angle and the flow of edited images inevitably reflects the ontological context of the watcher. It is best to resign oneself to this state of affairs and work within that context. This is exactly what Malle did in Phantom India . Indeed, Malle’s film is an extended examination of the issue of cinematic objectivity. He is less concerned with the camera’s putative “invisibility” (there are many occasions when his subjects look straight into the camera) than with the inescapable fact that the director, as well as each viewer, brings to the film his or her own intellectual categories by means of which the perceived reality is to be constructed. How can we avoid casting our own prejudices and desires onto the images perceived?
At the outset of the film, Malle’s voiceover commentary states that he set out to make the film without a shooting script, without even a plan of what he was going to film. But lest you think that this series is little more than a travelogue of Malle’s visit, you should be aware of two exceptional features of this film that make it stand out: (1) Etienne Becker’s skilful and fluid camera work and (2) Malle’s reflective and insightful commentary. The result is a journey in pursuit of the mystery (to us) of India. Certainly India holds within its fabulous culture and society many profound secrets about not only who we are, but the underpinnings of what we once were and the expanded possibilities of what we perhaps could be in the future. This is not a new revelation, as 19th century scholar Max Müller attests:
“If I were to ask myself from what literature we here in Europe, who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of the Greeks and Romans, and one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more universal – in fact, more human, I should point to India” As such the film is as relevant today as it was on its release.
The seven episodes of Phantom India can stand on their own as separate documentary films about India, but under discussion throughout the series are overlapping themes, such as the traditional Indian caste system. Taken together, the episodes form a meditative mosaic of the author-director’s reflections on India.
For reviews of the individual episodes, click on the links below:
- Episode 1: “The Impossible Camera”
- Episode 2: “Things Seen in Madras”
- Episode 3: “The Indians and the Sacred”
- Episode 4: “Dream and Reality”
- Episode 5: “A Look at Castes”
- Episode 6: “On the Fringes of Indian Society”
- Episode 7: “Bombay”
- This was not always the case with Malle. His later Human, Trop Humain (1974) was much more aligned with the direct cinema approach.
- H. G. Rawlinson, India, a Short Cultural History (1968), Praeger, New York, p. v.