A couple of days back, the mailman brought us the two-DVD set of Phantom India from Netflix.
Phantom what, you ask?
Of course, you schmucks will ask.
All ye morons who genuflect at the altar of Aamir Khan’s crappy film 3 Idiots or insist that Ajith’s Billa is the ne plus ultra of stylistic films what would y’all know about Phantom India.
Phantom India is a documentary from the French film-maker Louis Malle. The documentary is in French with English subtitles.
Produced in the late 1960s over several months, Phantom India gives us a peek into two sides of the Great Indian Story – Eternal India and Changing India.
Originally commissioned by France’s Foreign Affairs Ministry the documentary was later (in the early 1970s) aired by the BBC.
Apparently, the Indian government of the day was so incensed by Malle’s portrayal of the country that it demanded the BBC yank the program off the air. When BBC showed the middle finger to that stupid demand, the government of India is said to have banned the BBC from filming in India for many years.
We’ve watched about 90-minutes of the documentary so far and find it interesting.
Phantom India is not a showing the Taj Mahal or the Vidhana Soudha kind of documentary.
More like random vignettes on various facets of life in India in 1968. As Malle says in the early minutes of the documentary, these are:
images gathered without a script or preconceived concept, a film of our chance encounters.
Still Malle covers considerable ground that we’re tempted to describe the documentary as a microcosm of India in the late 1960s.
There’s a peek into the Tamil film industry (you can watch the filming of the famous Sivaji Ganeshan-Padmini film Thillana Mohanambal), absence of kissing in Indian movies, interviews with well-known personalities like Cho Ramaswamy, glimpses into the life of rural workers outside Delhi, the Kapaleeswarar temple chariot procession in Madras, a young Hema Malini performing the Bharata Natyam dance, a visit to Kalakshetra, Goa, anti-Hindi agitation, rant against bureaucracy, family planning campaigns, a street artiste in Mysore, meeting with hippies et al.
Hey, mind you all this is only from the 90-minutes we’ve watched so far.
We still have another 270-minutes to go.
Malle is neither condescending in his treatment of India nor is he overly in the everything-is-wonderful-in-India camp.
Au contraire, what you see is a candor and a kind of detachment that you quickly begin to respect, accompanied by occasional moments of humor.
Take for instance, Malle’s take on the film stars from their towering billboards:
We always wonder: In a country with such beautiful, delicate people why are most of the movie stars short, fat and thick-featured.
We like that. 😉
Describing the reasons behind the documentary, Malle says:
I made this journey for personal reasons. It was an escape, a break, a sudden detour but the escape quickly became a quest, a need to discover or rediscover.
Malle made several films including Pretty Baby but supposedly considered Phantom India his favorite.
Here’s Malle on Phantom India:
In the autumn of 1967 I was asked by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to present in India a series of eight French films, including THE FIRE WITHIN — films more or less representative of the new French cinema. And I said yes. So I went to Delhi and Calcutta and Madras and Bombay presenting those films. I was supposed to stay two weeks but I ended up staying almost two months….After those two months I realized that although India was impossible to understand for a foreigner — it was so opaque — yet I was so completely fascinated by it that I would have to come back. So I returned to France at the end of 1967, and in a couple of weeks I raised the money I needed, which was almost nothing, and went back in early January with two friends of mine, a cameraman and a sound man. My proposition was that we would start in Calcutta, look around and eventually shoot. No plans, no script, no lighting equipment, no distribution commitments of any kind…. The interesting aspect of those documentaries for me was that I took one month just to examine the material, and then stayed in the cutting room for a year, until the end of 1969 practically. I was in Paris, I was going to the editing room every day and it was as if I was still in India…It’s been like a big chunk of my life. It was enormously important for me, and I’m still trying to make sense of it today.
— Louis Malle, in Malle on Malle, edited by Philip French
Be warned, the documentary is long. Slightly over six hours.
You may expect us to update this post after we finish watching the documentary.