Phantom India, Episode 7: “Bombay” - Louis Malle

Louis Malle’s four-month filming sojourn in India that resulted in Phantom India (L'Inde Fantôme) came to an end in Bombay (Mumbai), and this serves as the backdrop for his final installment, Episode 7. Much of the footage in the episode appears to be random street scenes that were shot opportunistically and without much planning. However, on top of all this seemingly random but atmospheric footage, Malle supplies a unifying commentary, which goes beyond the locale of Bombay and provides a summary of how he sees India’s current state and future directions. His commentary is even more interesting to contemplate now, more than forty years after they were originally expressed. The commentary, itself, is less structured here than in previous episodes, and it basically amounts to his judgments on six scattered topics (which are interleaved throughout this episode and are not aggregated and presented in the order listed here).

1. The Hutments
One of the lasting impressions on Westerners who have visited Bombay is the squalid hutments that the poor have assembled out of scraps and discarded building materials (some of these shanty settlements are visible from road on the way in to the city from the airport). As far as I can tell what was true in this respect in 1968 is still pretty much true today. Somehow these people manage to make do under dire conditions in these shanty towns, which lack sanitation facilities and other infrastructure. Even worse, there are many other people who appear to live on the streets, without any shelter whatsoever to call their own. Malle comments that he didn’t see such squalor when he toured the countryside, but the fact that many of the people in these hutments have come there in order to escape worse poverty of the rural areas is an indication of just how widespread and severe rural poverty must actually be.

2. Muslims
Muslims are a significant element of Indian society, but Malle did not discuss them until this final episode. He says that much of the Muslim population derive from low-caste Hindu converts during the reign of the Mogul rulers (16th-19th centuries). Although Malle reports that India has (in 1968) 50 million Muslims, today there more than 160 million Indian Muslims, and they represent more than 13% of the population. The cultural influence of Islam is even more significant, especially in the northern parts of India: the Mogul rulers imported Persian and Middle Eastern cultural values that were incorporated into many aspect of Indian life.

Malle has picturesque shots here of the Haj Ali Mosque, which was erected in the 15th century on a small islet just off the Bombay shore and which is reached via causeway. The causeway is only accessible during low tide, so devotees often find themselves wading through the ankle-deep water in order to go back and forth.

In general, Malle observes that Muslims and Hindus live together relatively peacefully (although more recently the spread of Islamic terrorism has elevated communal tensions somewhat). This is a further tribute to the general harmony of Indian society.

3. Parsis
The Parsis are another minority community, and most of their roughly 100,000 population live in Mumbai. Malle photographs a Parsi wedding ceremony, and takes the opportunity to offer his own commentary. The Parsis, who are of Persian origin and follow the Zoroastrian faith, fled Iran during the 10th century, and they represent another example, like Tibetan Buddhists today, of people who found a refuge in India from religious oppression in their homeland. As with the much tinier Cochin Jews (Episode 6), Malle seems scornful of the exclusiveness of the Parsi community, and his portrayal of them is unflattering. Despite the small size of the community, though, it is interesting how many Parsis have achieved considerable eminence in a number of diverse fields, including literature (Rohinton Mistry), journalism (Dina Vakil), industry (the Tata family), entertainment (Freddie Mercury), and music (Zubin Mehta).

4 Mores
Given the generally conservative character of Indian social practices, Malle found the Bombay red-light district surprising and fascinating. The prostitutes, many of them beautiful, are visibly available in “caged” apartments. Many of them tried to dodge Malle’s camera when he photographed the district, but others were openly inviting. Bombay’s openness towards prostitution contrasted with another conventionally sinful practice, alcohol consumption, which was so low that Malle characterise Bombay as a “dry” city. Although consumption of alcohol in India has significantly increased since the time of the filming, overall alcohol consumption in India today is still relatively low by world standards.

5 Politics
At various points in the episode, Malle discusses politics and political figures whom he encountered in Bombay.
  • Congress Party. They were powerful, but said to be corrupt. Their alleged corrupt practices later, in 1971, led to the infamous “Emergency” period (1975-1977) and to their ensuing fall from power.
  • Communists. Malle was surprised (he had discussed this in earlier episodes) that the Communist Party was not much of a force in India. Malle’s apparent leftist sympathies led him to complain that the Indian Marxists were too unimaginative, and they needed a Mao Zedong to organize the peasant population. (The Naxalites, who are indeed self-consciously Maoist, were just getting started at that time).
  • Shiv Sena. Malle covers the new Shiv Sena party and interviews their leader, Balasaheb Thackeray. This is an extreme right-wing and xenophobic party that tries to advance the interests of the local Maharashtri community ahead of all others. 

  • Other figures. Malle interviews a conservative politician (Pashabhai Patel), a leftist intellectual (Vinayak Purohit), and a comely Oxford-educated economist (Rajani Desai), all of whom he seems to believe are too Westernized and out of touch with the real India. Actually I found that the thoughts expressed by Ms. Desai to be thoughtful and objective, and her optimism about India’s political future has essentially been rewarded by subsequent events.
6 Industrialization and Society
The eternal questions concerning capitalism and socialism were fundamentally associated with the degree to which India was expected to open up its economy to more private ownership. The leftists wanted democratic socialism, and the right-wing wanted more freedom for the business sector. At that time in 1968, the economy was pretty restricted. For example, anyone who wanted to own a car for personal use had to get on a waiting list for 7-10 years. But new factories and auto-assembly plants were being built, and Indian industrialization was starting to emerge.

Malle still found the admixture of Western globalized practices and traditional Indian practices to be bizarre. Indians adopted some Western practices readily, while they resisted others. For example, many Indians enthusiastically adopted the British “stiff upper-lip” mannerisms to the point that they claimed that they were the last holdovers of true British culture. On the other hand, the fervent traders on the Indian stock market floor still felt compelled to consult their astrological charts in order to determine whether an upcoming trade offer was propitious.

In the final analysis Malle seems to be of a mixed mind. He remarks that India resists Western globalization, because “its social structures are stronger and more vital than anywhere else.” That is an expression of confidence that Indian culture will endure this invasion, as it has all the others. Yet at the end of the film, Malle wonders gloomily whether India’s special way of life will increasingly be overwhelmed by the modern world, which is more and more a case of man exploiting his fellow man. This to me is a bit too pessimistic. The stratification of Indian society has always represented an entrenchment of rules that ensured social and economic exploitation. There is nothing new about that. No, there is something else, something far deeper, lying at the heart of the Indian soul that persists and which will continue to endure and spread out to other parts. It is my hope that globalization's interaction with India will work in the reverse direction, too: the rest of the world will somehow be touched by and learn from the Indian way.

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