Louis Malle’s Calcutta (India 1969)

Louis Malle
Louis Malle

In 1969 the great French filmmaker Louis Malle took a camera operator and a sound man with him to India, and started shooting what he found there.

It was really a voyage of discovery and the documentary series (simply called India) that resulted from the trip he later called his favorite film.

The Indian Government however didn’t like it at all, and when it was shown on BBC in Britain they promptly banned the corporation from filming in the country, a ban that lasted a number of years.

When he filmed in Calcutta, he had so much material it didn’t fit into the format that he was using well, so he made another independent film just covering this one subject.

With an almost relentless camera style the film focuses in on life in the city, covering all aspects from high society race-meets to the most terrible slum conditions.

Along the way we see people living on the streets and mainly just getting along with things, bathing, eating, working and playing often in conditions most would find unbearable.

We also see something of the other side with a marriage, a cremation, various festivals and political demonstrations.

The Missionaries of Charity also they appear in this film (made a long time before Mother Teresa became well-known), looking after the dying in Kalighat and running a street clinic for lepers.

The film strikes me as intrusive at times, and it makes one question the ethics of pointing a camera into other peoples’ misery, even when the intention is not exploitation but a raising of awareness.

In the last sentence in the film (at least as it is presented here) Malle says: “They are astonished, to be filmed, to be pitied, to be a source of indignation.”

But the overwhelming impression is that there is a two way viewing going on, the faces in the film seem to be watching us as much as we are watching them, and it is the faces of the people which live on.

The upload to youtube here does not seem to have been done very well, and the joins between sections are very jerky with an apparent loss of footage. It also ends rather abruptly, making one wonder whether there was more to come. If I find a better upload sometime I will replace the one here.

Note that the film is narrated in French, and has English subtitles, but there is no commentary at all for the first 20 minutes or so, just a steady gaze.


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