Obituary: Louis Malle

Leonard Miall
Thursday 30 November 1995 00:02 GMT

In his comprehensive review of Louis Malle's film output [obituaries, 27 November], Gilbert Adair suggests that the documentary series Phantom India merits reappraisal. When this was shown on British television in 1970 the rumpus resulted in the closure of the BBC's office in Delhi and the repatriation of its news correspondent, writes Leonard Miall.

Malle filmed the five programmes for French television, and they were screened, in 1969, without any protest from the Indian authorities. Indeed, there was little reason why there should have been any protest, for they gave a strongly positive picture of the progress that India had made since Independence. The series examined the technological achievements of contemporary India as well as its cultural diversity, and its infinite capacity to charm and to surprise.

The next year the programmes were shown, slightly shortened, on BBC television. The British press reviewed them, on the whole favourably, and the BBC received approving letters, many from Indians living in Britain. But Malle's inclusion in the first programme of a few shots of people sleeping on the pavements of Calcutta touched a nerve. The film was heavily criticised in despatches from Indian correspondents in London, and later in the Parliament in Delhi, where no one had seen it.

Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, was facing a general election. She imperiously demanded that the rest of the Malle programmes be cancelled, on the grounds that they were "repugnant to good taste". When the BBC refused, the accreditation of Ronald Robson, its news correspondent, was withdrawn. The authorities also threatened to close the separate BBC Representative's office in Delhi which dealt with non-news matters, such as the difficult negotiations for permits to make television documentaries. The new conditions which Delhi sought to impose were so onerous that the BBC decided to close the Representative's office at the end of 1970.

In 1972, after discussions between the BBC and the Indian High Commission in London, relations were re-established. It was decided to reopen a BBC office in Delhi on a slimmed-down scale, with one man combining the roles of Representat- ive and News Correspondent.

Mark Tully had previously served in the BBC Representative's office in Delhi. He had then worked in the news area of the World Service. He was the obvious choice for the post. As the person then responsible for the BBC's overseas offices, I arranged for Tully to return to India, the country of his birth, with the title of Chief of Bureau. Bush House and the Television Service readily agreed to help fund his costs. The News Division at Broadcasting House refused to pay a penny, declaring that it was most unlikely that they would ever want to use any of Tully's despatches. How wrong can you be?

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