Louis Malle’s Phantom India at 50: “Tabula Rasa” As Phantom

Visual Spaces

Malle Montage

Darius Cooper

Episode One – The Impossible Camera


ndia’s first demand on Louis Malle, as he undertook this Jana Gana Mana saga, was the complete surrendering of his western tradition which he was asked to empty from his European sensibility.  As her next demand, his whole rationalistic and logical framework had to prepare itself to be replaced, surprised, and constantly contested.  India was offering herself to him as “a tabula rasa” where she became progressively, in her many bewildering avatars, a phantom.  Thus, she had to be captured entirely on the level of instinct that would then compellingly revert the film-maker, as a documentarian, to that primal state of innocence where he was forced to eliminate even standard practices of film-making like the mise-en-scene, for instance.  It was only by eliminating such practices that India would allow the documentary film-maker to arrive at many kinds of truth, and also reveal those mysterious epiphanies that pointed to those truths.  But in order to do so he had to first deal constantly with the reality that was India without disturbing it.  The privileged moments that happened before the camera had to be captured without the film-maker shaping them in any way from behind it.

What also had to be avoided was the one-percent of elite Anglicized, often middle class Indians, who function as the ruling class; who are fluent in English; and who have considerable knowledge of western cultural and critical theories that glibly engage them in their proverbial double-talk which is often repeated and tediously offered usually by those caught in-between two cultures.  In fact, Malle categorically begins “episode one” with a montage of interviews in which these strident one-percenters articulate their clichéd hopes and fears of an “India,” that Malle informs us in a voice-over, “they know nothing about.”  It is the other ninety-nine percent of India; the ones who don’t know English; the ones who are not on the top of the Indian economic pyramid; the ones who consciously or unconsciously use the Indian tradition ingrained in them just to survive; the ones who are ready to question and react to him honestly; the ones who are, in quintessential existential terms, always authentic or sincere.  It is these that Malle wants to engage with in his kind of cinema direct.

Take for instance, his filming of a group of rural fisherfolk shown having a loud and angry argument with a smart city middleman who is buying their daily catch of fish at an absurdly low monetary price.

Malle fishfolk1

The fisherfolk upbraid him for they know that he will sell their catch at inflated rates once he returns to the big city.  The two militant fisherwomen who are singled out by Malle’s camera pay no attention to him or to his foreign crew who have intruded on this altercation.  One of them calls the middleman an “out right bastard” to his face and insists that physically he be “kicked out.”  The other one pleads not to be so nasty and harm him.  Otherwise, no city middleman in the future will ever come to buy their fish and, as revenge, will boycott their meager livelihood.  There is no double-speak in both of these responses since both relate, in their own individual ways, to their present and future survival.  Each speaker offers an alternative to the rest of the fisherfolk reminding them of the consequences they will have to endure once they have acted.  This version of India is not being mediated by the one percenters who were repeatedly shown in their interviews as being ambiguous, insincere, and extremely uncomfortable at having a westerner turn his photographic lens on them and their country.  Many, in fact, appeared aggressive and mocking at what else could a westerner show but familiar stereotypes of India already canonized in the media in their part of the world.

The authoritative account of these two women, however, comes from their very sense of being.  It highlights a problem of grave injustice which can either be opposed or allowed to continue.  The focus is on the choice that is being offered and the responsibility to abide by it.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  This is the India Malle is interested in showing.  He is not showing us either the India which has the Taj Mahal in Agra or the India that has the Nuclear Plant near Bombay.  He wants to capture that India that lies in between its history and its past and its science and its future.

Another major idea that Malle explores in this fascinating episode, is the idea of “deliberate intrusion.”  What is interesting is that all the ideas that Malle explores are not predetermined but announce themselves through the “privileged moments” that happen either accidentally or instinctively before his camera.

Malle chooses to begin his odyssey by training his documentarian gaze on the Indian village, essentially a very important part of the Indian social structure.  As he and his crew approach two village women kneeling in the dust and plucking grass, one of them is seen running away “cursing and screaming” that “she does not want to be photographed.”  As he continues to film her, he verbally tries to question (on the soundtrack) his own intrusive motivations.  In fact, he tells us categorically that this woman makes him rightly “feel like an intruder” because he had “disturbed her.”  This woman wants to abdicate her image from his camera, thereby creating in Malle, the conscious need to question his intrusive cinematic approach.

Malle 1

At other moments, when he tries to film an encounter his crew has with a group of shepherds on the road, Malle announces to us, “the shepherds watched us filming them and some of them even mocked and made fun of us.”  Then he commences to translate their condescension in visual terms where we actually see them making faces and poking fun at the film-makers by literally mimicking all their cinematic movements.  While his verbal observation and visual observation is funny, Malle does not indulge in offering us any detailed analysis of the shepherd’s interesting reversal of gazes here.  But by juxtaposing the verbal with the visual, Malle opens up the whole enquiry of direct cinema.  He feels that it is not right on his part to challenge either their not looking (as in the case of that woman) or their defiant looking (as in the case of these shepherds).  They have chosen their actions and expressed them honestly and not allowed the film-maker to define them as a calculated part of his mise-en-scene.  This is not the film-maker’s reality.  This is India’s reality.Their responses are disturbing, but they are authentic.  They impose on the film-maker and his crew the problematic awareness that they are intruders and therefore should be treated as intruders.

These reversals of gaze serve two functions—first, they question not only Malle’s intrusive gaze but also the viewers’ gaze, since we too are involved in this transaction.  Second, such a process immediately establishes this act of film-making as a self-reflexive one where the act of “seeing” is reversed and questioned by the “seen” themselves!  It forces the film-maker to confess to his audience his own ignorance of these people, the landscape they are shown functioning in, and India.  But his indecisiveness is what makes these privileged moments before the camera so moving and so insightful.  In fact, these gazes become motifs that Malle constantly repeats in the rest of his efforts to understand this phantom called India.  Not only is he exploring India, but he is also exploring the documentary-making process itself by using self reflexivity as an important investigative tool.

This method forces Malle to abandon all directional attempts to “create” a subject called India in order to educate his viewers about it.  This would be false because India is not a creative subject but a distinctive historical and cultural entity.  And in order to arrive at that entity, Malle has to orchestrate all his cinematic images:  sound, color, movements and present them as a unification, first between himself and his subject, which is India, and then offer it on their same unified level to the spectator.

At other moments Malle achieves this unification on a purely visual level without offering any verbal clarifications that he leaves to the spectator to come up with.  This is borne out by Malle’s filming of a Muslim father and his son enacting the symbolical “Tiger Dance” as an important ritual of the Moharram festival.  All the meanings that have to be deciphered are conveyed evocatively on two performative levels which Malle’s camera executes.  On the visual level, the two black-sooted bodies with white skeletons painted on them convey the emblematic looks of that frenetic dance, while the rhythmic and intoxicating music, played on the aural level, compels both, the film-maker and the spectators to be completely mesmerized by such an enactment.  This unification is achieved at the expense of all cultural meanings, but so powerful is it that one is made to feel that any kind of cultural meaning offered as commentary would have been a wholly unnecessary intrusion.

India offers yet another discovery to Malle which is the confirmation of its phantom insistence.  It alerts Malle to the fact that India is made up of many realities.  It is like a palimpsest.  Just as one thinks one is filming a reality that is actually happening in front of the camera, there is another reality behind the first one that has also to be filmed, and then by juxtaposing the two, one finally arrives at a truth which is far more complicated and sometimes even devious.  A good example of this is when Malle films a religious ceremony in a little temple in a nearby village.  What fascinates him is how after the ceremony all the faithful devotees are shown “giving food and money to all the beggars” sitting outside the temple.  But as Malle moves in to talk to these devotees, he is shocked to learn, as he informs us, “that those beggars were not beggars but high caste Brahmins.”  They were merely playing the role of beggars.  In reality, they were quite well off.  But the reason why they were playing this role was to fulfill and endorse the ritual, Hinduism insisted on, of giving money and food to anyone who asked for them outside the temple.  Nobody, either a beggar or a rich man pretending to be one, could be turned away or refused!

Perhaps the most controversial scene in the first Episode is the unforgettable one of a dead buffalo being eaten, first by a wild dog and then by several vultures on a public Indian highway with many Indians shown whizzing past this bloody carnage in their cars and on their bikes and their scooters without being in the least bit concerned about it.

Auden’s haunting words from his poem Musee des Beaux Arts can supply the best commentary for this enigmatic Indian indifference offered by Malle in the same spirit as the poet’s Old Masters:

 About suffering they were never wrong
The Old Masters:  how well they understood
Its human position:  how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along….
….how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster.

In India, all animals are sacred and are considered so only when they are alive.  But when an animal dies, like this buffalo, and becomes meat to be consumed by another animal like the dog and the vultures, the dead animal instantly loses all its sacredness.  The indifference is not displayed out of any act of inhumanity.  It is conveyed as a part of their acceptance of death merely completing the cycle that began with life.  When animals die, they cease being animals.  They simply become food to be devoured by other animals.  This is the natural order of being and becoming.  The dead buffalo being eaten appears to a westerner like Malle ostensibly as “a disaster,” and as a powerful visual spectacle of savage beauty that has to be filmed.  But for the Indians, it is nothing else but a “final human position” achieved as a corpse which will soon be eaten and licked clean.  While the Indians are shown “turning away, quite leisurely,” from this “disaster,” the westerner and his crew “linger” over it and present it to the spectator for an incredibly long time.  But such as act calls for an “impossible camera” to record it because that is the only way that Malle, at the conclusion of Episode One, feels he can authentically come to terms with this enigmatic phantom called India.

Episode Two – Things Seen in Madras

In this episode we find Malle and his crew filming the delirious passage of a primitive medieval Indian chariot-float in the temple city of Kapaleshvara, run on large wooden wheels, Malle is fascinated by the sheer divine fervor of these Tamilians guiding this enormous structure on a one mile journey which will take five hours, with the collective effort of the faithful resting every twenty minutes.

This ancient contraption, like the Trojan Wooden Horse, carries its own popular gods and its high priests, but in its movements is shown to have no mechanics, no accelerator, and no brakes.  It moves entirely on the bhakti or devotion of its disciples, a bhakti, whose overwhelming sweat and will power, is so powerfully and so passionately displayed.

Malle episode2 chariot

This ritual, Malle notes, is predominantly masculine.  Women, children, and the old people of the city are shown standing on the pavements cheering them from the side or drenching these young men, determined and obedient galley slaves of their religion, with water from their balconies.

As cinema direct, Malle tries to cinematically involve himself in this massive collective delirium by shooting this entire spectacle from below that menacingly hovering monolith.  A lot of water continuously drenches his camera lens, but like these young men wiping the pouring sweat from their eyebrows, the lens is repeatedly cleaned and brought back to focus on that uninterrupted journey.  Malle intensifies this involvement with a profusion of hand-held shots that literally suck the spectator into that crowded procession and makes him feel that he is pulling and pushing the chariot as well.  Many times, Malle’s camera comes dangerously close to those gigantic wooden wheels, but it is the sheer exercise of faith that prevents any accidents from taking place.

Since religion, in south India, is tied so intimately with the local film industry, Malle now segues into first, the satirical world of Chennai (Madras) theatre and then, into a behind-the-scenes production of a regular South Indian film potboiler.

Malle first films a group of regional actors performing a comic satire penned by a popular playwright called Cho.  It’s a play depicting the antics of a Muslim despot Muhammad bin Tughluq who was obsessed with Hamlet’s celebrated “antic dispositions.”  Tughluqu’s insane actions were deliberately, and often spectacularly staged, to point out the absurdity of the Indian political system of his time.  And by resurrecting them now, Cho seems to convey the idea that really nothing has changed in Indian politics.

Malle’s camera next enters the Madras film industry by witnessing a scene being shot of a typical kitschy melodrama called Thillana Mohanambal.  The scene depicts, the “Jean-Paul Belmondo” of India, matinee idol Sivaji Ganeshan, portraying a humble clarinet player trying to win the love of a wealthy young woman.  The musical performance, however, is often interrupted by several, often amazing, accompanying “magical forces” whose jarring intervening effects fascinate Malle who is trying to search for some traces of a “psychology” that refuses, just refuses, to present itself in the enactment of that particular scene.

The last section of this episode is the most compelling one.  Here Malle films, quite extensively:  the vigorous and demanding practice maneuvers of young Bharata Natyam and Kathakali dancers in the Kala Shetra Dancing School.

Malle episode2 dance

So absorbed are the students and the teachers in the daily mudras or gestures and nrityas or dance movements of their Kala or skill, that Malle and his crew, who are in the same hall trying “to capture them” on film, are completely forgotten.  These students and teachers are not performing for these foreigners but for God himself who, at this precise moment, is their sole inspirer and their sole spectator.  It is his eyes that they are seeking and not the eyes of Malle’s mechanical instrument.

Frustrated at being denied entrance into this fascinating performative/spiritual transaction, Malle confesses his inability to do so and retreats by defining these performances as a “body language” understood only by the performers since it is their intimate knowledge of the spiritual world that makes them achieve that essential self which is needed to make the dancer the dance and vice versa.

malle episode 2

That is why this episode ends with the camera’s mysterious descent into utter darkness.  It is not, as though Malle is suggesting the mere end of the performance.  It is as though God suddenly decided to leave the room, and once he did, all that magic of dance and music completely evaporated into a darkened void.

Episode ThreeThe Indians and the Sacred

In an attempt to understand what the Indian means by the idea of “the Sacred,” Malle visits a statue of Nandi the bull, which is next to the city of Mysore in south Karnataka.  He is fascinated here by the daily enactments of “poojas” that he defines as “at once prayer, offering, and ritual ceremony.”  He sees them conducted by peasants, families, and the priests.  What Malle finds so fascinating about the pooja is how it enables the God or Goddess, to whom pooja has to be offered, dictate the very performance of its offering by the devotees.  The sanctified site or the womb to which the pooja is addressed and the womb from which the sacredness of the ceremony is orchestrated forms Malle’s principal focus.  It vividly becomes, in the most venerable temple of Madurai, the garbhagriha or that sacred space that houses the image of that (and every) temple’s titular God or Goddess.

As the camera lingers over the static image of this God or Goddess, it then moves away and now focuses on the dynamic actions and gestures of the devotees assembled before it.  What Malle movingly captures in this dialectic is how the devotees have to activate all their responses as pooja.  If drinking the holy water that is available at the site is an important part of the pooja then Malle is shocked to see everyone “drinking it” even when his camera picks out the visibly dangerous pollution of “larvae and fish” swimming inside it.  What purifies that water is neither common sense nor chlorine.  In an astounding leap, literally from the profane into the sacred, what purifies it is simply faith.

A roughly created tiny idol, in one of the temples’ courtyard, captures Malle’s attention next, since it imposes on all the devotees around it the same two gestures of penance.  This involves the simultaneous touching of their ear lobes with both their hands crossed before them while squatting and rising on their feet.  This he discovers is the acknowledgement of their punishment for all sins previously committed.  But what fascinates Malle is the ritualistic aspect of these gestures.  This is not just an exercised form of genuflection.  It is a sacred command, first, imposed by that sanctified idol and the devotees’ collective responses arise from their need to confront this insistence and Malle’s camera, transfixed by it, is fascinated by the privileged moment where both, as part of the pooja’s liturgy, actually meet.

Closely tied to actions like these, Malle suddenly discovers another “privileged moment” when he decides to quietly follow, on a regular Madurai street, a male devotee on his way to the temple.  The stifling Madurai heat imposes on this man an oppressive kind of clumsiness which is seen in the weary progress he makes on his feet from his home to the temple.  But the moment he enters the temple precincts, something magical happens to his customary indolent style of walking and weary lassitude.  As a devotee, he suddenly acquires what Hindus call “Krpa” or as Malle puts it “a grace that can be called, recalled, or commanded.”

Malle’s definition is not only right, but it is one that is so magically achieved by the sudden transformation the sacred brings about in this devotee.  What happens to him, happens to all who cross that threshold where the street with its secular life ends and the temple with its sacred life begins.  Filled with faith, we witness this devotee straightening up, bending down, and circling the temple with movements only divine powers could have taught him.  It is such a privileged moment which makes Malle understand how “the sacred” teaches man to “Upanishad” or “approach God.”

The devotee’s journey, he recognizes, is from the “periphery” where he dwells to the center where the divine resides.

And this sacredness makes these devotees achieve a leap into some other realm which is difficult to define; all critical terms seem to fail.  What can only explain it is “the grace” that is reached by them and Malle is fortunate to catch “that grace” and record it for posterity in his camera.

This episode ends with two more powerful examples of this sacred “grace.”  The first is the image of an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has been climbing the hundred stairs of the Ramajirukha sanctuary every day of her life and the other is of an elderly sadhu; a world-renouncing hermit, who is shown walking alone down a country road, his eyes and mind fixed merely on distance, neither affirming nor denying the presence of this foreigner filming him.


Darius Plaque imageDarius Cooper teaches Critical Thinking in the Humanities at San Diego Mesa College, California, USA.  His essays, poems and stories have been widely published in several film and literary journals in USA and India
A sample: Between Tradition and Modernity:  the Cinema of Satyajit Ray (Cambridge University Press).In Black and White:  Hollywood Melodrama and Guru Dutt(Seagull Publications).Beyond the Chameleon’s Skill (first book of poems) (Poetrywalla Pub).A Fuss About Queens and Other Stories (Om Books).
Read his review of Kedarnath Singh's poetry 'BETWEEN THUMBPRINTS AND SIGNATURES'.
Other articles by Darius Cooper are:


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.