Thursday, October 20, 2011

Criterion Recollection: Phantom History

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

Phantom India, The Eclipse Series (1969)

Phantom India is such a fitting title for Louis Malle's most personal work. The film not only focuses on India's underclasses, a near invisible people, hidden from western view by the pretense of India's elite, but the documentary form proves a phantom as well, mixing self-awareness, humility and outrage into an organic whole that even today jars us from our expectations. This seven-part miniseries, running over six hours, explores India during the late 1960s, before its unbridled industrialization exploded in full force.

Westerners hailed India as an exotic jewel, a land of sensuous pleasures, of vibrant colors, robust vitality and spirituality. India became an ideal, a sentimental notion of otherness to which westerners could retreat when they tired of their own mechanistic society. Take for example, the Powell-Pressburger masterpiece Black Narcissus, which used this idea-model of India to great effect. Malle shatters this image with an honest foray into the lives of Indians and a comprehensive overview of India's sociopolitical conditions in the late 1960s. This film captures a fragile and lost part of India’s history, between the era of colonial imperialism and the modern era of outsourced labor force, when the tides of westernization were on the horizon, but had yet to crash.

Many documentaries, particularly those introducing foreign countries, attempt to provide an "objective" view, which is to say, they eliminate their own presence and film life "as is." Malle approaches the situation from the opposite pole, taking comfort in subjectivity, in acknowledging his own presence as a disturbing factor, by knowing that life "as is" and life in front of a camera lens can be two different things.

The first episode seems less about India and more about Malle. He repeatedly talks about how shocking it is that although many Indians have never seen a camera before, they pretend it isn't there or merely cover their faces in discomfort. He speaks about his ethical role as a documentarian, as a human being, in a foreign country. He admits to his own ignorance about his subject matter and his hopes that this ignorance will make his filmic record innocent and pure. Malle's approach can be seen in the title sequence, preceding each episode.

Many documentaries about India would use the beautiful landscape, the architecture, the local arts and crafts, the great gatherings of people to give the viewer a sense of India's milieu. Malle opts instead to show close up after close up of Indians on the street. And as the viewer stares into the face of each person, he or she is forced to confront that person's humanity, to think about how they live their lives on a daily basis, how they struggle, enjoy, survive. This then becomes Malle's project, to explore exactly those questions, to find out what India means to Indians in their everyday life. This means cutting through the Chamber of Commerce picture of India and reaching its citizens' political, religious, economic and social realities.

Because Malle approaches this from a quasi-Marxist position, the film is rife with class struggle. India provides an excellent canvas for the Marxist brush, with its rigid caste system and vast discrepancies in wealth. Malle explores leftist movements in India, venturing into communist rallies, marches and protests, even capturing a street riot where armed police chase down dissidents in the streets and beat them with sjamboks and blackjacks. But again, his self-awareness outshines his ideology.

Malle interviews two young westerners, hippies, who moved to India to escape western capitalism. They wax poetically about India's anti-materialism and close-to-the-earth spirituality. He presents them sympathetically, and their motives and big ideas move one to agree with them. However, later in the same episode, Malle revisits one of them as he flees back to Europe, because he has fallen ill and does not trust Indian healthcare. It becomes clear that these kids are from rich families; their sojourn stemmed less from spiritual conversion than another lark of privilege, one from which they could escape at any time. This then, is Malle's outlook in a nutshell: India can captivate westerners with its alterity and beauty, but extremely harsh reality hides beneath the surface and cuts through the mysterious glow with fatal seriousness.

This film can seem extremely dated, as India modernized so rapidly since 1970. Yet, present are the seeds of India's modernization, of its western and corporate exploitation, of how the majority of citizens remain under the rule of a local power that has adopted the methods and beliefs of colonial forbearers. The importance of Phantom India doesn't lie in how its society resembles contemporary India but how it provides the foundation for contemporary India, whose conditions grew organically from this brief interregnum.

The series shambles along, slowly paced, with long periods sans commentary, simply reveling in the images and music of the culture, watching normal people go about their lives. This pace can distract at first — especially now, when we are so used to the quick action of television and film — but after a few episodes, one looks forward to the ponderous gaze of Malle's camera, to the detail of each frame, the import of each person to whom we bear witness. Instead, the pace of real life starts seems out of place, unnatural. In a later episode, Malle himself mentions how he and his crew adapted to the pace of Indian life, content to wander along, filming things as they came upon them, without consideration for time or hurry.

But by no means can one relax through this series and be swept away by its earthy beauty. Malle forces the viewer to confront the harshest realities of India: the poorest slums, the ostracized castes, the primitive tribes driven to destruction. Malle takes issue with these injustices, yet the documentary itself does not seem propagandistic. It has enough artistry and lacks enough direct purpose to avoid becoming "simply" a document of more of the world's horrors. It incorporates these horrors into a totality that also includes the good parts of India, such as the mesmerizing section in episode two on the Bharatanatyam, India's traditional dance.

Although he shows the dancers for nearly half an hour, I was upset that it seemed so little. Watching the precise movements of their bodies, the strange, exaggerated expressions of their faces, the discipline and rigor with which they perform each minute gesture, I realized that more than just a dance. And, far from the pretension of interpretive dance, these girls told a story; their dance was a narrative that any initiated person could read like a book or hear like a tale. It makes the viewer realize what it means when something is exotic, when something differs qualitatively from what we know in our own lives.

But again, Malle doesn't romanticize it. It's a reality, a compartment among many, but by no means a definitive representation of its essence. Like Howard Zinn, Malle chooses to give priority to those people usually marginalized. They are one of the phantoms of India, part of its underside, haunting its official image with their existence. Malle spends very little time with the wealthy one percent, tourist landmarks or romantic scenery. His footage of the bigger cities gives us a monstrous labyrinth of slums, population density, caste- and sex-segregation — of a rich religious tradition underlying, or perhaps underwriting, grotesque social conditions.

He devotes an entire episode to the caste system and, through it, explores how an unwritten law can have such a real hold on hearts and minds. The combination of Indian religion, rebirth (samsara) and karma, with the caste system, provides a unique justification for the suffering of the poor and lowborn. Simplified, the higher castes have done "more work" in their past to free themselves from worldly attachment. By contrast, the lower castes are only beginning their work, and must suffer first before being reborn in the upper castes. This of course means that the Brahmin families retain their wealth, because each new child holds the soul of one who has ascended through the castes. Likewise, the pariahs and lower castes are told to accept their lot, and in the next life, provided their karma is good, they will ascend to the next level. Thus, hereditary privilege (as well as hereditary poverty) has been earned in the invisible realm of samsara, a convenient situation for those born into the upper classes.

Malle explains how the caste system exists in general everywhere, but that each locality provides a unique coloring and systemization of caste, some having outrageously specific designations, hundreds of castes, and rules preventing the sharing of resources between them. One could liken this to religious denomination in the west, but it differs in that in India, the religious and social order was bound together tightly. One's "denomination" determined one's quality of life, and one could not advance, save through death and rebirth.

Perhaps this acceptance of a supralife that proceeds through many phases, ascending gradually to Brahmin and beyond, gives India its peculiar combination of resignation and vitality. While the lower classes may be resigned to their lot, that does not prevent them from living full and impassioned lives. Malle shows men gathering in public spaces to sing, play music and converse. But does this joviality mask contempt or dissatisfaction, or do the people truly believe in their ideology, and in resignation, lacking the engine of ambition, feel free to enjoy life as it comes? This is one of the mysteries of India, one that an outsider has a hard time wrapping his or her head around.

Malle doesn't paint a definitive picture of India. He offers a slight glimpse into the nearly infinite complexity of its inner life, and viewers are left to contemplate what they've seen, consider what has been omitted, wonder what has changed since then and take their own ethical stance. The phantom of India reveals itself in the faces of the Indian people, of the radical difference and the uncanny similarity of their world to ours. History follows the narrative of power. For every single narrative thread of this sort, there exist millions of unspoken lives, stories that never get told, that do not survive the generational revolutions. We cannot know them all, nor have time to process them, but Malle reminds us that they exist and are the necessary foil of official history. He reminds us that we must see the totality of a society in order to understand any part, that we cannot raise up some facets of it without acknowledging the price at which they come, that beauty and horror coexist, sometimes in the same image, the same face, and from them we cannot turn away.

Phantom India is part of the Eclipse Series 2, the documentaries of Louis Malle. In addition to Phantom India, the set includes the companion piece, Calcutta, a devastating and far more grim look at Indian society than Phantom, as well as five other documentaries from around the same time, on various subjects. Because these are Eclipse, and not Criterion proper, none of these films have any special features, and they are only available on DVD. Don't let that put you off; it's the quality of the content that matters, and Louis Malle's entire catalog is worth watching.