Thanks be to Criterion's "Eclipse" line, and its stated mission of bringing lost films back to light! For without it, I would never have heard of, let alone seen, Phantom India, Louis Malle's six-hour French television documentary from 1969. Yes, I mean this in a positive way.
The backstory: in 1967, Malle was sent by the French government to India as a sort of ambassador of cinema. He quickly fell in love with the country and in the spring of 1968 he returned, with cinematographer Étienne Becker and sound recordist Jean-Claude Laureux. Over the course of a few months, the three men recorded over 30 hours of footage. Forward a bit, and we find that Malle struck a deal with a television network to present the footage as a seven-part miniseries, each chapter clocking in at 51 minutes, give or take.
It is impossible to fathom three people making a film of such reach and ambition as Phantom India (four, if we count editor Suzanne Baron), but it is equally impossible to imagine Phantom India being made any other way. Above all things, this is a profoundly intimate film that looks into the tiniest corners of a very large country, and every frame make it obvious that the crew is - must be - small and inconspicuous. In every new shot of someone looking critically, quizzically, angrily, or without any emotion directly into the camera lens, this is reiterated. We are not watching the product of a film crew so much as the home movies of a small group of tourists.
Befitting its extraordinary length, Phantom India covers a great deal of ground, and can be identified as having many themes. To start, this is a story about a non-Western culture being devoured by the West. Also, it is about the institutional oppression of a fundamentally hierarchical society, though not before it is the study of a spiritual system that privileges harmony above all other things. But above all things, and I suspect this is what Malle had in mind when he declared in 1993 that this was his most personal film, Phantom India is about the man behind the camera, how everything that we see is ultimately filtered through his perceptions, and how his presence changes the behavior of the people he records.
The ground rules of the project are set down in the very first moments of the opening episode: the filmmakers travelled across India, filming whatever they can, without preconceived notions of how they want it to fit together. As much as was reasonable the 2% of Indians who spoke English, and the 1% of Indians who had any appreciable money were avoided, because they had always been the voice of India to the rest of the world; Malle wished, perhaps idealistically, to allow those not in power to speak for once, Marxist that he was.
It's immediately obvious that the matter of ordering the footage was of paramount concern to Malle. Each episode covers distinct territory, although there is a great deal of overlap between them: Part 1 simply deals with a Westerner finding his footing in a shockingly alien world, while part 2 concerns the territory of Madras; part 3 looks at Hinduism; part 4 contrasts the dreamy spirituality of the population with their grim economic reality;part 5 is a study of the caste system; part 6 explores the "fringe" communities of the country, from the 100 or so Jews living in the country to native tribes whose existence predates history; and part 7 collects footage shot in the English-built city of Bombay, from political movers and shakers to fishermen.
As helpful as that schema might be, it doesn't really convey Phantom India's flow, which I can only describe the history of the country itself (it begins in agrarian peace and religious aesthetics, before moving into social theory and ending in a colonial city and raw politicking), or perhaps the history of Malle's experience of the country. Within the first ten minute, he (as narrator) explains that the project is ultimately his "dream" of India, a phrase that occurs once more in the six hours. "Dream" and "Phantom"; these are the words that Malle uses to describe not the country as it exists (for what is the documentary if not a physical proof of how the country exists?) but to describe the country as it seemed to him, a foreigner who was never able to shake the idea that this was an exotic land of mysticism. By the time he came to edit the footage and write his narration, Malle had awaken from his dream and seemed to have a hard time remembering what he saw there, or what the footage means in a literal rather than a metaphoric sense - he begins several thoughts with some variation on "months ago," and often seems to be interpreting what he wanted the footage to mean when he shot it, not what it means to him later that year.
Like so many white Westerners before and since, Malle was taken up by an idea of what India meant that had little or nothing in common with the actual country; but Malle was saved from the most objectionable excesses of that habit by his natural training as a filmmaker, which compelled him to record everything he found with an eye towards objectivity, and his Marxism, which forbade him from romanticising the squalor that fills most of the country. In the first episode, he satirically dramatizes this arc in the form of two American hippies, who the filmmakers met early in their journey, when they were fresh and optimistic and stoned. Weeks later, Malle found them again, on the cusp of leaving a country that had borne out none of its promises.
Phantom India never falls into the trap of those American hippies, for at no point does Malle try to convince us that the country is an Eden. In every episode, the director reminds us of the caste system, which he clearly views as an utter evil, and throughout the six hours he complains, sometimes forcefully and sometimes only implicitly, about the Western culture that is forcing its way into the country, destroying the traditions of India, or even worse, cheapening them by stripping them of their historical and religious value. Indeed, although Malle obviously finds the country fascinating, it seems as though he complains about the state of things far more than he praises the art and religion and peace of the country.
As well and good as all of that may be, the heart and soul of Phantom India is in its ethnography, in all the moments when Malle-the-polemicist throws his hands up and simply observes. The tone of this film is very meditative and relaxed, and throughout the six hours we often spend five or ten minutes simply watching a single action: a man working a plow through a field, two women practicing their dances, a holy man wearing sharp rods throughout his body in mortification. Except to give us context, Malle is largely silent in this sequences, and this is the bravest kind of filmmaking - showing the audience footage and encouraging them to come up with their own opinions on what it all means.
At one point in one of the later episodes, the director shows us a weaver, and mentions apologetically that he cannot vouch for the realism of anything we've seen, because as he watches the footage, he is aware that the woman onscreen is performing for him; this was inevitable from the moment that he asked if he could film her. It's a shocking admission, surpassed only by a sequence from the first episode, where we watch a pack of dogs and some vultures picking apart a dead cow on the side of a road. This sequence is the first extended moment in the film, going on for endless moments (five or six, that seem like a lifetime), and at the end of it, Malle confesses that the filmmakers later discovered that there was nothing even slightly significant about that moment, except to their fresh European eyes. These two moments do not undercut the film so much as they warn us that all six hours are coming through a very subjective channel. As often as Malle overgeneralizes in his narration, he seems anxious to make sure we understand: this is not the true India - this is his India - this is just a collection of things he saw that might mean everything or nothing at all - as the subtitle indicates, these are merely réflexions sur un voyage.