Malle's troublesome film shows us all our futures in India's past

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The Independent Online
ONE of BBC Television's special offerings over the Christmas season is a film by the French director, Louis Malle, who died last month. It hasn't, so far as I can tell, been much (if at all) touted in those festive snow-sprinkled trailers that tell you what to look out for, and yet, 20- odd years ago, it was one of the most controversial films the BBC had ever shown, and it has never been shown by the Corporation since.

We are not talking about sex here, though in a way we are talking about violence. The film that will be screened later this month is a compilation taken from a series of documentaries that Malle made about India. It was not a particularly kind portrayal; the documentaries showed India as a sometimes harsh and brutal society, which it can be. Malle once described the series as "the work I'm most proud of", but the Indian government was so furious that it kicked the BBC out of the country, and it is reasonable to assume that there were many difficult conversations between the Foreign Office and Mrs Gandhi's regime before the BBC was allowed back in. When I first went to Delhi, nearly 20 years ago, Malle and his film were still talked of as a deplorable business, a large rupture in the recent history of India's relations with the West.

Because of all this fuss, I've always been keen to see Malle's film and last week, thanks to the series editor, Nicholas Fraser, I watched a tape of the new version, Louis Malle's India: a Film Journey. There is a lot to admire in it; several startling and beautiful sequences which, when they were shot in 1969, caught the poverty and religiosity of India as no other foreign film-maker had. And I can't think that any film, foreign or Indian, before or since, has so dramatically shown the true meaning of manual labour. In the closing passage, young coolies push wagons laden with salt up a tramway from a salt marsh, inch by straining inch. You cannot see it and not thank God for almost every technical innovation since James Watt invented the separate condenser.

THERE is also something about Malle's film, however, that drove me up the wall, and may drive you there too (if you watch it, which I recommend). That is Malle himself. He wrote and spoke his own script, and it has some of the qualities that have rightly made the term "French intellectual" synonymous with pretension and humbug, at least outside France. Right from the start, we are left in no doubt that Malle sides with the wretched of the earth - always a sound position to take - but also that he feels bad about intruding on them. The opening scene shows a barren landscape in which two women are scrabbling for weeds, presumably as animal feed, though we are never told. One woman runs away from the camera.

"For her the camera is an evil eye which could cast a spell over her," says Malle. "Still we do film, but something inside me revolts against our intrusion. By what right should we be allowed to point a camera at these women, to embarrass them, to treat them as things? On the one hand you have in India people like us, using Western words; and on the other hand you have the people we plunder. [SLOW ZOOM TO CLOSE-UP OF WOMAN'S HANDS]. On the one hand the robbers, on the other the robbed."

The evil eye? Perhaps the woman simply objected to Louis (not to mention Jean, Claude and Etienne) poking a camera up her nose. Malle's revulsion? Then stop filming. People as things? The answer here would be to allow them to speak. But no Indian speaks to the camera in Malle's film, and their words to each other are not translated. Despite all Malle's compassion and good intention, his film never escapes the charge which so troubles its maker, that of Western voyeurism.

This was not, of course, what upset the Indian government. They were furious because in their view the film presented a poor image of India, since it might make Westerners, who perhaps had imagined India as the Taj Mahal plus village spinning wheels, change their minds. And it is probably true that until that time India, thanks to Gandhi and Nehru, had managed to sustain a picture of itself as a place of an unusually kind moral quality.

TODAY the Malle affair seems to speak from a different age, before the global media, when governments could more easily close down coverage of their countries by evicting a few reporters, when (paradoxically, considering there was so much less of it) they took the media business more seriously in terms of its political effect. What on earth was all the fuss about? In the years since, we have seen films about caste oppression, communal differences, bride-burning, child-labour in carpet factories, films often made by Indians in which Indians speak. Nothing has suffered - though you might also argue that nothing has improved - as a consequence, apart perhaps from the view of India as a benign political idea. The Indian economy has been liberalised, imports pour in, the satellites rain unstoppably down, tourism from the West flourishes as Malle could not have imagined in 1969.

The tourists, in my experience, no longer return with the old sense of shock: such poverty, such disparity in wealth! Perhaps, because of films such as Malle's, we are better prepared, but it may also be that India is no longer quite so different. It has changed and so have we. One passage in Malle's film is devoted to beggars. He is clearly shocked by them. To residents of many Western cities, that shock will seem archaic and almost amusing.

The lesson I drew from watching Malle's film was that history twists quite unpredictably. Malle, only 25 years ago, could think of India as the past, saying towards the film's end: "All over the world, industrial civilisation has slit apart and destroyed societies and traditions. The world is becoming uniform [LONG SHOT: PEOPLE PREPARING STEAMING POTS IN TREE CLEARING]. But India still resists because her social structures and religious forms are [LONG SHOT: WOMAN CROUCHING AMID POTS] more solid and more alive than anywhere else."

They may be still. In India the microwave oven may never completely replace the cooking pot even though tree clearings are harder to find: at least, those surrounded by trees, so many trees having been cleared. But to look at the restless energy and chafing divisions of India now - what V S Naipaul identified as its "million mutinies" - is, I think, to see a portent for all our futures.

'Louis Malle's India' will be screened by BBC2 at 8.25pm on New Year's Eve.