"L’Avventura" - Michelangelo Antonioni (1960)

By the end of the 1950s Michelangelo Antonioni was in his late forties and a well-established writer-director in the Italian film industry. His now-celebrated cinematic style was already evident in such films as Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) and Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957). But it was with the release of L’Avventura (1960) [1] that Antonioni achieved his breakthrough to international fame as one of the world’s great film directors. The film was made under arduous circumstances, involving difficult location shooting under harsh physical conditions and with production sometimes interrupted by intermittent and uncertain financial backing. After all their hard work, Antonioni and his new star, Monica Vitti were dismayed when at the film’s first screening at the Cannes Film Festival the audience responded with boos and dismissive laughter. Antonioni and Vitti left the theatre assuming that the film would be a commercial and critical failure, but before the festival was over L’Avventura had received fulsome praise from an array critics and filmmakers. The film was awarded the Festival’s Jury Prize, which explicitly praised the film “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images”. L’Avventura not only went on to worldwide commercial success, but Antonioni was placed at the pinnacle of filmmaking genius.

L’Avventura is sometimes classified as the first film of Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation”, which included his immediately succeeding films, La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962), but there is nothing to distinguish these three from earlier and later Antonioni works, other than, perhaps, the heightened emphasis on the anguish caused by the seemingly inevitable impermanence of love. There are still some things about L’Avventura, however, that makes it stand out in Antonioni’s oeuvre. The aesthetic marriage of image, performance, and sound (the score is spare, but subtly effective) creates a continuous mood that seems to capture something essential about the human condition. To a certain extent these visual effects go beyond verbal articulation, and Antonioni himself has suggested the same thing by shying away from explicit commentary on the film’s meaning. This is evidently what was meant by the Jury Prize’s wording, and also to those who respond to the film’s imagery, when it is said that L’Avventura created “a new movie language”.

For those looking for a conventional film narrative, however, the film is maddening. For long stretches nothing much seems to be happening. And worst of all, the presumably most important character and her associated narrative thread is gradually sidelined and eventually completely abandoned. This contrasted significantly with the contemporary film Psycho, which seemed superficially similar to L’Avventura. Both films featured a young woman whose early disappearance became the object of a search by a man and a woman. But while Psycho never loses its focus on that early disappearance, the plot of L’Avventura seems to drift away into aimlessness. As a consequence the conventional moviegoer may well feel cheated and manipulated by what seems to be a cheap artifice. Nevertheless this provocative narrative turn in L’Avventura is not just a trick, and it certainly does lie at the heart of the film, but the role it plays is quite different from what occurred in Psycho.

The story of L’Avventura could be considered to have five basic sections, or movements (perhaps that is a better term, since the movie plays like a musical piece). Each of the sections has a mood to it, and each has an associated environmental architecture which colours, or reflects, or perhaps even influences that mood. Several of the sections end with a startling event that changes our perception of the characters and shifts the narrative direction.
1. Anna and the trip to the island (26 minutes)
It begins when Anna joins her girlfriend Claudia and then her boyfriend Sandro to set out on a pleasure cruise from Rome on a small private yacht headed for some islands off Sicily. Using the narrative process of slow disclosure, the film gradually reveals the identities and relationships of the other people on the yacht. There are four women: Anna, Claudia, Giulia, and Patrizia, who is the wife of the absent yacht owner, Ettore. The three men on board, Sandro, Raimondo, and Giulia’s husband, Corrado, all work for Ettore. All of the people seem to be wealthy and devoted to making cynical witticisms about life and each other. Anna is clearly frustrated with these superficialities and with the depth of her relationship with Sandro. When they reach the tiny volcanic island of Lisca Bianca, they swim briefly and then dock the boat and disembark. While the others continue their idle chitchat and wander about, Anna quarrels with Sandro, who then snoozes for awhile by the water’s edge. When Sandro awakes, Anna is not around.

2. The Search for Anna on the island (30 minutes)
The group comb the island everywhere, but Anna is nowhere to be found. The beautiful and tempestuous Anna, played by Lea Massari, is clearly the character of most interest to the viewer at this point. Unfortunately, she is not seen in the film again, and the effort to find out what happened to her now consumes the yachting party. She had earlier demonstrated a willful and provocative nature, and she may have left the island (perhaps on another boat that some of the party think they may have heard) in order to punish the careless Sandro. On the other hand, given the steep cliffs and treacherous waters, she may have fallen into the water and drowned.

The cinematic environment has moved from confinement and close quarters of movement #1 to the open, barren landscape of the volcanic island, as everyone searches for Anna. Anna’s two closest acquaintances, Claudia and Sandro, are the most concerned about her, and the worried Claudia blames Sandro for losing track of Anna. Together with Corrado, the three stay overnight on the island, while the others depart back to Sicily to fetch assistance. The police return and scour the island to no avail as frustrations increase.

But then, abruptly, Sandro catches Claudia alone in the boat and impetuously kisses her. Claudia runs to the shore and says she will remain on the island looking for Anna, while Sandro heads off to Sicily to investigate further leads there. There is now a new narrative turn: Sandro and Claudia.

3. Claudia and Sandro on the trail (38 minutes)
Sandro presses his romantic case with Claudia, but she demurs and insists they concentrate on finding Anna. Much of this section meanders among episodic content that variously displays the predatory attitudes Italian men and women seem to have towards love and sex. While searching for more clues about Anna, Sandro sees a statuesque “writer” (but actually a prostitute), named Gloria Perkins, whose sexy dress and manners attract a crowd of wolf whistles from men on the streets of Milazzo, Sicily. Meanwhile Claudia, back in Rome, sees the conjugally neglected Giulia foolishly dally with a 17-year-old painter who fancies himself to be a Lothario.

Eventually Claudia meets up with Sandro again, and they decide to travel together in their search for Anna. But suddenly, shockingly, we see the two of them kissing passionately on the grass. Claudia has succumbed to mad love.

4. Claudia and Sandro together (24 minutes)
The focus is now on Sandro and Claudia. They guiltily confess to each other that they should be looking for Anna, but they are now more concerned with the development of their own relationship. The search for Anna has passed into the background. While visiting an old church, Sandro admires the architecture and muses on his past ideals of being an architect. But he made his career compromises, and now he is just a very well-paid functionary for Ettore’s business interests – he has sacrificed whatever scruples and ideals that he once had. Impetuously, Sandro proposes marriage to Claudia, but she is too shocked to say, yes, pointing out to him that she had only met him for the first time just three days earlier.

Throughout this section the innocence and sincerity of Claudia is contrasted with narcissistic posturing of Sandro. Sandro is clearly obsessed with maintaining his masculine image, but his insecurities are evident, just below the surface.

5. Return (23 minutes)
Somewhat later Claudia and Sandro are now recognized by their friends as a romantic couple. Anna has been forgotten. They check into a fancy hotel where Ettore and Patrizia happen to be staying and go up to their own private room. Claudia, giddy with romantic passions and dreams, entreats Sandro to quit working for Ettore, but Sandro is reluctant to abandon the decadent lifestyle that such work affords. Claudia, sleepy from their travels, retires to her bed, while Sandro goes down to the hotel lobby to socialize with all the wealthy patrons.

In the early morning Claudia wakes up and noticing Sandro is still out, dresses and goes down to the lobby to find him. When she finds him on a couch making love to Gloria Perkins, she is shattered and runs out of the hotel. Sandro follows her out to a plaza, and slumps down on a park bench, sobbing at his own weakness. Claudia, still numb with grief, approaches him and tentatively caresses his head from behind as the film ends.
The meaning of L’Avventura is open to interpretation. Indeed, great films have a richness to them characteristic of life itself that affords multiple perspectives. Ultimately, it seems to me, this film is about the possibilities of authentic relationships between men and women. The society in which we live is dominated by conventions and mores that people both resist and acknowledge. That wider scope is reflected in the multiple focalizations of the narrative. Initially the focalization is on Anna, but then it shifts to Claudia, Sandro, and occasionally even to Giulia, as each wanders across the border of authenticity and inauthenticity. It would be too easy to dismiss Sandro as a self-indulgent fool. There is a genuine innocence about him, and he often seems to be searching for the right thing to do. But he is also captive of the roles and stereotypes that modern society offers him to play.

Men, of course, have more latitude than women in terms of the roles they can play and the behaviour in which they can engage. Anna, Claudia, and even Giulia, struggle to find the roles suitable for their own fulfillment. Whether it is due to their more limited social circumstances, or due to some deeper impulses, women often want to possess their men, totally. Anna wanted to possess Sandro, and yet she also confessed to Claudia that, at the same time, she wanted her own freedom, too. She vacillated between two conflicting urges. Claudia was more innocent. After hesitating to give her heart, she fell passionately for Sandro. She, too, wanted to possess him. The fact that she wanted him to abandon his semi-corrupt lifestyle working for Ettore and live purely according to his presumed artistic passions was a sign of her desire to engage him fully. But this was perhaps an unattainable ideal. And to be fair to Sandro, when they were in the Sicilian hotel and Sandro impulsively wanted to make love with Claudia, she wasn’t in the mood at that moment. Authentic human relationships are not easy.

The word “l’avventurra” means ‘adventure’ in Italian, but it can also mean ‘love affair’ or ‘fling’, and Sandro uses precisely that term when he teases Claudia in the Sicilian hotel room. This was a moment of inauthenticity for him, and he said it, because he was momentarily distancing himself from Claudia as a consequence of her momentarily rejecting his physical advances. This is what the film is about – the borderline between the authentic, sincere gestures of intimacy and the less-than-satisfactory social conventions that people flout and mock.

It is a mark of the elegance of Antonioni’s glorious mise-en-scène that L’Avventura can explore the subtlety of this aspect of human engagement with such grace. Every shot is carefully choreographed and composed to convey and sustain the mood of human feelings. In fact the cinematography is so good that one can even forgive the poor quality dubbing, which was a characteristic of Italian films of that time before synchronous sound techniques were used in the studios. Perhaps in connection with those dubbing limitations, Antonioni is often cited as primarily a pictorialist, obsessed with the abstract formalisms of the visual image. But in fact Antonioni’s expression encompassed more than just static compositions, and included movement, timing, and dramatic rhythms. The acting of Lea Massari (as Anna), Monica Vitti (as Claudia), and Gabriele Ferzetti (as Sandro) is not only superb individually, but also as an ensemble and harmonious with the social ambience in play. Ferzetti had already appeared effectively in Le Amiche, and Vitti would go on to be Antonioni’s partner and favourite dramatic lead.

In the final shot, Claudia makes the supreme gesture of forgiveness. She is crushed, heartbroken, but she makes her compromise: she chooses life, with all its imperfections.
★★★★

Note:
  1. See also the essay, "Cinematic Expression in L'Avventura"

"The River" - Jean Renoir (1951)

After fleeing war-torn Europe and coming to America in 1941, Jean Renoir experienced mixed successes and increasing artistic frustration with the Hollywood studio system. By 1948 he was having difficulty finding financial backing for his films, but he finally managed to get funding from one-time-only producer Kenneth McEldowney to film Rumer Godden’s semi-autobiographical novel of her youthful experiences in Bengal, India, The River. The resulting production of the film, which was released in 1951, was remarkable in several aspects. The film was shot on location in India, and it represented something of a landmark in the presentation of India on film to Western audiences. It was also Renoir’s first color film, and also the first color film to be shot in India. The Technicolor filming process was complicated and required significantly more artificial lighting than black-and-white films, so that shooting such a film outside the confines of the big studios represented a significant challenge.

Godden’s stories had been film before, notably with Black Narcissus (1947), but on that occasion she had been unhappy with the alterations made to her original story by Powell and Pressburger. With The River (1951), she was engaged to co-script the film, and although significant changes were introduced in the story, the alterations were in accord with Godden’s original themes. Of no less importance, is the fact that the production of The River was instrumental in launching the careers of two youthful, first-time production assistants who later became seminal figures in Indian film history: writer-director Satyajit Ray and cinematographer Subrata Mitra.

Over the years The River has been widely praised, but it has also been dismissed by just as many viewers as simply a mundane coming-of-age story about a teenage English girl and her first crush. Indeed most of the characters are European, and the Indian location merely seems to be a backdrop for some colorful location footage. Modern viewers might also be put off by the sympathetic presentation of privileged English colonialism. An additional drawback and perhaps even more of a hindrance to one’s viewing enjoyment is the very uneven and awkward dramatic performances of the amateur actors in the film. Presumably for budgetary reasons Renoir employed amateurs in many of the roles, and the timing of their dialogue scenes is often wooden and artificial. Despite these glaring weaknesses, though, there is more to the film than first meets the eye. I have seen The River three times now, and on each occasion I have come to appreciate it more.

What elevates the film for me is its philosophical character; and in this connection India is not just a backdrop, it is very much a thematic element of that narrative. The story is told by a mature narrator, a professional author, who is reflecting on her early experiences as a teenager. It is true that she was living a privileged life during the Raj, but the cultural influence of India and its Hindu practices shape the way she perceives many of the events around her. An interesting sidelight on this philosophical theme is that one of the principal characters in the film, the half-Indian girl Melanie, is played by Radha Burnier, who besides being a professional dancer was (and still is) a major figure in the Theosophical Society [1].

Although the story seems very simple, there are a number of characters and some interesting narrative turns.
1. Introduction (35 minutes).
The setting is a colonial estate in a village along one of the tributaries of the Ganges River in Bengal. There is no evident time period identified in the film, and when a war veteran (Captain John) appears, the viewer will probably naturally assume that reference is being made to World War II. However, Rumer Godden was born in 1907, and given the autobiographical elements to the story, and the fact that the teenage protagonist, Harriet, is about fifteen years old, that reference is probably to the First World War. Anyway, the India shown here is timeless, so the precise dating doesn’t matter.

The focalization in the film throughout is seen through the eyes of the protagonist Harriet, who introduces the characters at the beginning of the story. She is the oldest of five sisters and has a young brother, Bogey, about seven. Her father manages a jute mill, and her mother is pregnant, expecting another child. There are some Indian servants, including a nanny who looks after all the children and a stern Sikh doorman who guards the front gate of the estate. Their widowed neighbour, Mr. John, had an Indian wife, and early on in the film, his daughter, Melanie, returns home from boarding school after a long absence. Harriet has a close friend, Valerie, who is the daughter of the owner of the jute mill (never seen) and who, at about eighteen years of age, is perhaps a bit younger than Melanie.

Soon the lives of the three teenage girls are enlivened by the announcement that Mr. John’s American cousin and war veteran, Captain John, is coming for an extended visit. When he meets Captain John, Harriet’s father graciously offers that “if you stay long enough, . . . we’ll get you a shot at a tiger”. Such were the days of the British Raj.

2. Rivalry (21 minutes).
With the introductions out of the way, the visual metaphors come into focus. The ordered, cloistered life inside the estate walls is surrounded by the exotic outside world of India – a world that is ccrweded, complicated, and full of mysterious things. Thus there is a striking visual contrast between the familiar patterns of our everyday world and the mysteries lying in wait just beyond those borders. The recollecting narrator recalls how fascinating the village life was and the way it mixed so many different patterns of life. The sacred river is the unifying image of this world, literally and metaphorically. It brings so many people together along its banks and it symbolized the endless flow of life and death. But there is also one element from this exotic world that exists inside the estate compound – an enormous pipal (banyan) tree. These often huge, complicated trees, with their branches that can drop down to the ground and take root, are almost forests in themselves. It, too, represents the disorderliness of the exotic and unknown outside world. Bogey spends his time with a native Indian mate exploring the corners and shadows of this forest area and trying to be its master.

Harriet and Valerie are both quickly smitten by the attractive Captain John. He is invited over to the estate to celebrate the traditional Indian Diwali festival of light. Captain John, however, has not come to India for romance, but to run away from the traumas associated with his having lost a leg in the war, and he walks with an artificial limb. He is now a lost wanderer, unable to come to grips with the fact that he is diminished and not a normal man.

Melanie is attracted to Captain John, too, but has her own issues. As a mixed-breed individual, she feels that she doesn’t belong to any society. In Indian society she is casteless and therefore at the bottom. In Western society (this was back in the period when white racism was rampant), she is seen as “black”. Despite her culture and beauty, she feels that she doesn’t belong anywhere.

3. Frustrated Desires (24 minutes)
Conflicts now begin to erupt. Valerie exposes Harriet’s secret diary, with its romantic descriptions of Captain John, to the man they both desire. But Valerie’s aggressiveness backfires when her sporting challenge to Captain John makes him fall, reminding him of his disability and souring their relationship. Meanwhile Bogey, pursuing his obsession to emulate a snake charmer he had seen in the village, locates a cobra hiding in the pipal tree and tries to charm it with his flute.

All three girls have their own romantic longings for Captain John, and various tentative encounters take place that are blocked by self doubts and social inhibitions. Although Captain John seems genuinely attracted to Melanie, it is the aggressive Valerie who succeeds in forcing the issue and invoking a romantic embrace in the forested estate garden. At the end of this section, only frustration prevails. Melanie and Harriet are crushed to witness Captain John kissing Valerie. Valerie, herself, is disappointed that expectation exceeded the fulfilment. And then Bogey is found dead in the garden from a snake bite.

4. Reconciliation. (19 minutes)
After the sad and moving funeral for Bogey, everyone is melancholy. Captain John and Melanie have a heartfelt talk about life, and Melanie asserts that the only solution is to consent to what is. Captain John resists such passivity and affirms his refusal to accept a diminished role for himself.

Harriet, who had known about Bogey’s snake-charmer obsession, blames herself and decides to end her life. She hires a boat at night, floats in it down the sacred river, and then jumps overboard. But local fishermen rescue her, and Captain John goes out to the dock to meet her. When they talk, they both accept that they can still live fully within the bounds that life has set for them.
A distinctive feature of The River is the commingling of the multiple characters into a common theme. There are five significant goal-driven characters whose narrative threads are interleaved in the story. Each character has his or her distinctive stance towards the world at large:
  • Bogey wants to conquer the world in the fashion of his imperialist forbears. He is confident that he can master the snake-charming technique and gain control of the cobra.
  • Valerie is narcissistic and self-confident. The world revolves around her, and she wants to grab whatever she can for her own self-indulgent pleasures.
  • Captain John doesn’t want to accept what he must: the unavoidable restrictions imposed on him by the physical world.
  • Melanie is an outsider, but feels she can do nothing but “consent” to what the world has dictated to her. But these restrictions are socially-imposed by ignorance and not by physics – they should be resisted.
  • Harriet is the dreamy idealist who wishes that everyone could be Krishna or Radha and live in perfect harmony.
In addition to the many atmospheric shots of Indian life, both ritual and practical, on and along the river, there are three scenes in the film that stand out for me and resonate long after the film is over. All of them relate to and reinforce the principal theme of embracing the wonder of ever-changing life – swimming in the river.
  1. [2nd section] Harriet’s eight-minute visualized story that she tells to Captain John and Valerie. An imagined young girl resists her father’s arranged-marriage demands, but on the wedding day, the chosen groom magically turns into the god Krishna – and she, herself, becomes his consort, Radha. Afterwards the married couple resume their identities and live a happily married life.
  2. [3rd section] Harriet, Valerie, and Melanie are in the forested garden of the estate in section three, looking for Captain John. This is also an eight-minute sequence, and it interweaves the perspective and frustrated yearnings of all those characters.
  3. [4th section] Mr. John’s brief soliloquy after Bogey’s death on the beauty and wonders of childhood. It is children, he says, who really engage the world the way it should be engaged. They see the wondrous nature that has become faint and less visible to us adults, and he celebrates the vivid, authentic life that Bogey had led.
As with most Renoir films, the ending of The River is not conclusive. The main characters do not get what they wanted, but they do emerge from the story chastened, wiser, more humane, and more mindful of how they can act cooperatively in the endless river of life. Rumer Godden's lyric closes the film:
The river runs.
The round world spins.
Dawn and lamplight,
Midnight, noon.
Sun follows day –
Night, stars, and moon.
The day ends;
The end begins.
★★★

Notes:
  1. Radha Burnier was an associate of Jiddu Krishnamurti and had a long career as a leader, organizer, and author in the Theosophical Society Adyar (the original Theosophical Society). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radha_Burnier.

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.
★★★½ 

Phantom India, Episode 6: “On the Fringes of Indian Society” - Louis Malle

In Episode 6 of Louis Malle’s seven-part documentary series on India, Phantom India (L'Inde Fantôme), the attention is turned to some encounters with people and groups that were ostensibly outside his principal focus, which was to come to grips with the mystery of essential Indian culture. The activities described here offer something of a potpourri, and their only common trait would seem to be that they are outliers. Nevertheless, there is an additional unifying thread in this episode that relates to Malle’s overarching theme, and that is the degree to which Indian society has always largely tolerated and provided a peaceful home for diverse customs and lifestyles. The episode successively takes up the activities of five interesting social groups, each of which has its own fascinating ways of operating.

1. The Bondo People
He first describes his strenuous hike to meet up with the Bondo people, who live in the forests of Orissa, in eastern India. The Bondo, who number about 5,000, are a fiercely independent aboriginal people who live completely outside ordinary Indian society. Their language, for example, has nothing in common with other Indian languages. The men, who are only semi-clothed, hunt with bows and arrows. The women wear only a couple of items of clothing: (a) an extremely low-hung loin cloth, which leaves their buttocks almost completely exposed, and (b) a collection of thick brass necklaces – nothing else. Unsurprisingly, their quasi-nudity attracts the attentions of Malle’s camera. Despite their primitive conditions and isolation, though, the people seem not to have minded the intrusion of Malle and his small crew.

Further attesting to the fact that the Bondo people do not seem to stand on ceremony was the fact that the boys and girls of the tribe mix together with total sexual freedom and often live in unisex dormitories, where they can better acquaint themselves with future spouses. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Bondo, at least to Malle, was their women, who (unusually for India) outnumber the men and traditionally marry men who are about a half-dozen years younger themselves. The principle labour of these women involves the construction of straw brooms, which they sell at a local Indian market for the extremely low price of ten brooms for a single rupee. This occasional visit to the market is the only contact and economic commerce that the Bondo have with the outside world. Amazingly, the pitifully small amount of money collected from these sales apparently all goes into buying more brass necklaces for the women.

Despite the simplicity and seeming innocence of these primitive Bondo people, however, their frequently sad countenances suggested to Malle that their lives were very hard and are far from the paradisal existence that he had hoped to find.

2 Christians in Kerala
Kerala has a significant number of Christians, and the Christian Church in India traces its history all the way back to the visit of St. Thomas, the Apostle, in 52 A.D. Nevertheless, Malle observes that Christian evangelism hasn’t made much progress in India, despite efforts by both the Portuguese and the English. The small minority who are Christian, according to Malle, are “fanatic”. The conversions that the Christian manage to make apparently come from either the highest or the lowest castes, and indeed the caste system persists just as firmly within the Christian community as it does in the Hindu community. Thus the Christianity in India seems to be something of a hybrid with aspects of Hindu practices. This should not be surprising in light of the fact that Muslims, too, both in Indian and Pakistan, also live according to the caste system.

3 Jews in Cochin
Malle also visits the Jewish community of Cochin, which was even older than the Christian community, claiming a continuous history of 2,600 years in India. Remarkable, and a further testament to Indian cultural tolerance, is the fact that India is the only country in the world that has not ever subjected its local Jewish community to persecution. But the Cochin community that Malle visited was very small, only about one hundred members at that time. In connection with such a small group, Malle disparagingly criticised their exclusive endogamous social practices, by which inbreeding, he dismissively claimed, had weakened the community and made them sickly and physically degenerate. The people that Malle interviewed, though, asserted they were very happy with life in India, where they lived in relative prosperity and free from persecution. The community population had been diminishing by emigration to Israel ever since 1948, and in fact today, it has apparently dwindled to zero. (There is still a Jewish community today in Mumbai, numbering about 5,000 people, but, sadly, they were targeted by Muslim terrorists in the Mumbai bombings of November, 2008.)

4 Aurobindo and Pondicherry
Malle and his crew next cover the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry (Puducherry), which is situated in an enclave in Tamil Nadu in southeast India. The founder, Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), was a remarkable figure who managed to be a prominent Indian nationalist activist, politician, philosopher, poet, and yogi. After his political activities were essentially stifled by the government, he retired from politics and founded the ashram in 1920. He was soon joined by a French woman, Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), who became his spiritual colleague and was eventually simply referred to as “The Mother”. She took over management of the ashram in 1926, when Aurobindo retired into meditative seclusion. By the time Malle arrived in 1968, The Mother was very frail and not making public appearances, but she was still making recordings to deliver to her followers. The ashram is attractive to educated, prosperous Europeans and Indians, and many of them have come from all over the world to settle down there, bringing their wealth with them. There is a progressive school, athletic activities, and small businesses – all run by the devotees. All of those interviewed by Malle asserted that they had found an inner peace and understanding that had led them to true happiness. Malle is nonjudgmental, but seems sympathetic. At the time of Malle’s visit, the ashram was in the process of planning and constructing their utopian city, Auroville, near Pondicherry, and it continues to operate today, with a population of about 2,000.

5 The Toda People
Malle’s last topic in this episode is his visit with the Toda people. Here, at last, he claims to have found the real, utopian society. The Toda people, numbering only about 800, live high up in the Nilgiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu and remote from the rest of the world. There they seem to live in a state of nature, all practicing free love throughout their lives. Malle asserts that no Toda girl is a virgin past the age of thirteen, and that sex is considered by these people to be a simple, natural need. In those days of Malle’s visit (1968), because Toda men outnumbered the women, women would often marry all the brothers of a given family (fraternal polyandry). In this connection and as a consequence of the prevailing free love practice in the society, paternity was impossible to establish, so the oldest brother was automatically designated to be the legal father of any offspring.

Besides free love, though, there are other attractive features about the Toda way of life. The people have never waged war, and they have no weapons. Fighting is not something they do. Although they never took to farming, they are nevertheless vegetarians, and live off milk, honey, and wild fruits. Their land is communally owned, and they have no laws, leaders, or hierarchy – complete egalitarianism. If ever there is a dispute among the Toda, a council of elders is gathered specially for the occasion in order to resolve the issue. The people, themselves, Malle observes, are generally carefree, and he captures on film their spontaneous ability to improvise songs and dances to suit the occasion. But Malle worries that encroaching “civilization” will eventually and inevitably absorb these people and divert them away from their idyllic ways. Although we are only talking about 800 people out of the vastly populated subcontinent, Malle laments the thought of such a passing –
“. . .these 800 Toda are the last remnants of a free society. They never knew war, hunger, prudishness, or injustice.”
If Malle were alive today, he might perhaps view the fate of the Toda people as a metaphor for the relentlessly homogenizing impacts of globalization on all of Indian society.
★★★★