"Calcutta" - Louis Malle (1969)

In 1968 French director Louise Malle took a two-month furlough from the stresses of his life and professional work to visit India. He was only 35, but his brilliant early career (he shared a Cannes Palme D’Or at the age of 23) seemed to be on a dangerous downhill slope, and he was coming off a marital breakup. What he saw in India was a profoundly different way of life and attitude towards reality, which undoubtedly commingled in his mind on his return to France with the student rebellion going on at the time in Paris. He immediately decided to return to India with a cameraman and sound recordist to make a documentary film, and he travelled widely about the country, shooting footage opportunistically and without a preset plan over the ensuing five months.

When Malle returned to India, he had to edit the thirty hours of footage he had accumulated into meaningful documentary material. Much of the footage went into creating the seven-part TV series, Phantom India (1969), which is a uniquely brilliant and reflective examination of the soul of India. But he felt that the material he had for Calcutta (Kolkata) was too much to fit into the Phantom India series, and he made a separate 99-minute documentary film, Calcutta (1969) from that material for theatre release.

One of the interesting things about Calcutta is just how different it is from Phantom India. As I remarked in connection with Phantom India:
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 filmmaker 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 reflect the ontological context of the watcher. It is best to recognize 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.”
Calcutta is much less personal than Phantom India and strives for a more objective depiction. The contrast is particularly evident in connection with the presentations of Indian religious practices in the two works. In Phantom India, Malle reveals a personal fascination and amazed appreciation at the depths of Indian religiosity. There is almost a sense of envy at the dedication of Indian religious practitioners and the degree to which their beliefs may bring a profound sense of contentment, even under impoverished material conditions. But in Calcutta the bizarre religious practices seemed to be viewed from a remote and uncomprehending distance. There is no attempt to get inside what may motivate these practices. This remoteness carries over to the rest of Calcutta. Everything in the city seems strange, cluttered, exotic, and sometimes grotesque. There is less empathy and sympathy and more critical condemnation of the dysfunctional “system” in place. Nevertheless, this critical remoteness does not mean that Calcutta restricts itself to a purely objective topographic overview of the city. The film is still basically a randomly impressionistic presentation, but with a more dispassionate eye.

Another significant distinction between the two works is the overall narrative flow. In each of the seven hour-long segments of Phantom India, there is a sort of narrative theme that oversees the images. In those films Malle seems to be relating part of his personal journey and encounter with the soul of India. But in Calcutta we see a repeating sequence of critical segments without Phantom India's sense of personal narrative flow. In fact the segments in Calcutta seem to move almost cyclically through three thematic subjects:
  • People/Religion. I put people and religion in the same thematic category here, because in this film, both the customs of the people and their religious practices are viewed from the outside as things that are interesting, but somehow odd and unfathomable. The religious practices in this film are just one more strange aspect about the Indian people and do not represent something fundamentally different from other customs (which contrasts with Phantom India, where religion and spirituality was fundamental to the whole work).
  • Politics. There are some segments that take a critical look at politics in India – from the perspective of Malle’s European leftist/Marxist sympathies. These segments are the most “distant” and represent depictions from a critical, Western viewpoint.
  • The Poor. Calcutta at this time was the epitome of impoverished human suffering, and its horrors were also brought to Western eyes at about the same time by Ved Mehta’s 1970 article in The New Yorker, “City of Dreadful Night” [1], which later appeared as a chapter in his Portrait of India (1970) [2]. Malle dwells here on the wretched conditions of the many people who have come to Calcutta, some of whom were fleeing perhaps worse conditions of starvation in the countryside.
The segments circling though these subjects that are described below do not show much progression, and it almost seems as though they could have been placed in a different order.
  1. People/Religion 1. The first fifteen minutes of the film show the sights and sounds of Calcuttans without any voiceover commentary. The segment starts off with people, mostly men, bathing in ritualistic fashion in the river (presumably the Hooghly). Then there are images of various people observed moving about the city in dense crowds, with a particular attention to interesting faces.
  2. The Poor 1. This segment presents brief coverage of the “Dying Rooms” of Mother Teresa, who was not well-known to the West at that time (she was highlighted in Ved Mehta’s article soon thereafter). Here the “poorest of the poor” are picked up off the street by Mother Teresa’s charitable volunteers and given some care to alleviate their suffering prior to (for most of them) their deaths.
  3. Politics 1. Some local politics are discussed. The 1967 election led to a centre-left/communist government in West Bengal, but it was overthrown by a parliamentary manoeuver, and to restrain dissent the new government declared martial law and forbad people assembling in groups greater than five (an absurd decree for the crowded city of Calcutta). Malle explains that both the two communist factions in India, the left-wing communists (who followed the Soviet line) and the right-wing communists (who didn’t follow the Soviets) refused allegiance to Mao. Only the fledgling Naxalites started in Naxalbari in 1967 followed the Maoist line, which was where Malle’s sympathies lay.
  4. People/Religion 2. There is a coverage of the joyous Festival of Saraswati, the Hindu consort of Brahman and the goddess of knowledge and the arts. Calcuttans spend considerable effort to build and decorate numerous life-size statues of Saraswati, only to throw them all into the river on the final day. One can’t help but reflect on what seems to be the obvious waste of material resources and labour that all this entails.
  5. Politics 2. There is a brief depiction here of the Westernized rich, who are cut off from Indian traditions and ape Western practices and lifestyles. Malle repeats the widely-held view of many Indians concerning the British plunder of India:
    “The British East India Company systematically exploited and exhausted the riches of Bengal, taking considerable capital back to England. This influx of money allowed the Industrial Revolution and English capitalism to get underway.”
  6. The Poor 2. Before independence, Calcutta was the processing centre for jute fields that were later partitioned off into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). To replace the jute fields, the Indian government used land in West Bengal normally used for food production, leading to severe food shortages in the region and semi-starvation.
  7. People/Religion 3. Calcutta was home to some 50,000 Chinese immigrants, and this section shows some of them celebrating the Chinese New Year. Today, though, the ethnic Chinese population is probably only around 2,000. This is followed by discussion of the Sadhus (these were also discussed in Phantom India), who have renounced all material amenities to practice their lone, individual spiritual paths. Despite the poverty in India, the Sadhus are respected and offered alms by even the poor people. Finally, this section shows a Hindu burial.
    “For the Hindu, death is not a dramatic event. It is neither an end not a deliverance . . . . life is only a stage, a passage, a brief moment in a cosmic cycle.”
  8. The Poor 3. There is further coverage of the massive, abject hutments of Calcutta where squatters live on privately-held land. This is followed by shots of unskilled labourers and emaciated pedicab drivers struggling to pedal about their heavy loads. As always, Malle is fascinated by the seemingly pointless, menial tasks of labourers who often appear to be doing nothing more than moving useless objects or paper around. (But after all, are not most of us doing the same? The only difference perhaps is that we are better paid for our seemingly nonsensical tasks.)
  9. People/Religion 4. This section covers a middle-class wedding, whose ceremonies appear to be ornately weird and laborious. But the large feast provided the groom’s parents is welcomed by the guests. This section also depicts a musical conservatory for sarod-playing that is run by Aashish Khan (son of master Ali Akbar Khan). Many of the students have studied the sarod there for years without plans for professional play, just for their personal satisfaction.
  10. Politics 3. Students rebel when the University is closed by the state governor. Many of the students evidently advocate the idea of an armed peasant revolt in the style of the Vietnamese and Maoists. The ensuing student riot, however, is forcefully broken up by police.
  11. The Poor 4. Here there is a coverage of the awful conditions of the lepers in Calcutta, which at that time numbered around 75,000. Since that time, however, the treatment of leprosy has been one of India's relative success stories, and the number of lepers has been greatly reduced in the country: there are now less than 5% as many cases as there were then.
  12. People/Religion 5. Another Sadhu is shown. This one took up a vow seven years earlier never again to sit or lie down. He is shown surrounded by his disciples who attempt to tend to and alleviate his physical pains. This is followed by a series of shots covering street mountebanks, musicians, and further opaque religious ceremonies.
  13. The Poor 5. Here there is extensive coverage of the slums of Howrah, a southern industrial sector of the Calcutta conurbation. Forty percent of Calcuttans were said by Malle to be living in “subhuman conditions”, and this section depicts the squalor and filth of their habitations. There is also coverage of Tamil immigrants from southern India, who don’t speak the local Bengali and are forced to live in squatter settlements outside the city in equally “inhuman” conditions.
At the end of this cyclical coverage of Calcutta, one is left with a feeling of the crowded, cacophonous, almost lurid conditions of life in Calcutta. Since Calcutta was not an ancient Indian city, but was created as a service centre for British imperial interests, Malle is evidently castigating the West for creating these monstrous, inhuman conditions and not rectifying the faults that linger on. This is a fairly grim viewpoint, seen by an outsider, and it is one that might not be shared by Indians aware of the rich Bengali traditions and culture. Still, the film is a fascinating record, because Malle was one of the first people to get out on the streets and make movies about life as it existed there. He had amazing access to a wide spectrum of city life in Calcutta, and the images are not staged or faked. Malle’s interesting kaleidoscopic perspective is still available on film, as it was forty years ago, for anyone to see and make of it what he or she will. For Malle, and for Mehta and Kipling, too, Calcutta may have been “the city of dreadful night”. Whatever perspective one takes, though, we are still trying to understand and learn, as Malle was, from what seems to be an alluring phantom.

  1. Mehta, Ved, "Profiles: City of Dreadful Night." The New Yorker, 21 March 1970.
  2. Mehta, Ved, Portrait of India, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

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