Last week, I read of a documentary on India by a French filmmaker, Louis Malle. After reading a review of it in the NY Times, I decided to borrow it from Rentertainment, a Champaign DVD rental store. The review was unabashedly positive, speaking of an “epic portrait of a nation” or some such thing. Made in 1968, to me, it presented an opportunity to see India, albeit through a foreigner’s lens, from a period I really had no clue about – the 60s, to me, were defined by the anti-Hindi riots in Tamil Nadu (in which my father claims to have participated).
Since my computer refused to play the DVD, I went over to Kaushik’s place and he, Vivek and I sat down to watch it. The first episode (of six) is called ‘The Impossible Camera’ and starts off with Malle saying (as a voice-over) that talking to the middle and upper classes gives him no perspective of the real India, and how he and his mates are going to traipse about filming whatever they see instead of having a pre-determined script or even an outline. Fine idea, I suppose, as the 1st episode does a pretty decent job of showing off parts of India that I hadn’t seen before – fishermen on the Andhra coast haggling with dealers and middlemen, a Hanuman dance in Mysore (incorrectly labelled ‘Muslims dancing for Muharram’ by Malle), vultures and dogs pecking away at the carcass of a buffalo, Kerala’s communist legions opposing a rise in postage prices and the wedding ceremony in the Gypsy (Nari Korava) community. For inexplicable reason, he also interviews two stoned Frenchmen and speaks to an disillusioned Italian nudist.
The 2nd episode, the reason I really wanted to watch this series was about Madras. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘Despite being completely clueless about the rest of India, I can tell how well he does Madras.’ It starts off reasonably well at the Chariot Festival from Mylapore Tank. Then we see ‘Mohammed bin Tuglaq’ and a mini-interview of Cho. We are taken to the sets of ‘Thillana Mohanambal’ and to a family planning clinic. So far, really interesting. Very cool stuff, Madras like I’ve never seen before.
Then, he ventures into Kalakshetra Foundation, at the time, beyond the outskirts of the city. Speaking to Bharatnatyam dancers and teachers, he begins to film the lessons (after much hesitation on the part of the Foundation’s authorities). And films. And films. And films. This goes on for about 20 or 25 minutes. At this point, all three of us had lost interest, and were verging on the point of irritation. Where was the beach? The lighthouse? Cooum? Adyar River? Fort St. George? The railways, buses, Central Station? Ripon Building? T. Nagar? Nothing. None of these captured Malle’s attention, and he spent (or wasted, depending on your PoV) 25 minutes filming Bharatnatyam dancers. While I have great appreciation of the art form and the artists, I think it’s unfair to the viewer to say that the episode is about Madras and not show the city at all.
Now, we had some sort of baseline to compare with – and decided that despite our limited knowledge of the rest of India, this chap couldn’t really do justice to it. Give up only are there.