Early in his monumental fresco "Phantom India" (1969), the late Louis Malle says he decided to let his camera be his guide, meaning he would strive not to impose any preconceived views of the country on his documentary but would attempt to immerse himself in its daily life and discover for himself the complexities of its culture and society. His approach not only allowed him to capture the quality and tempo of life in many parts of India but to do so with considerable depth.
Malle's tireless willingness to explore and reflect upon what he experienced in turn provided him with the confidence to make occasional subsequent strong criticisms, especially of widespread poverty and bureaucratic corruption, the problematic status of women and the caste system, which although officially abolished with India's independence from Great Britain in 1947, he found to be worse than ever 20 years later. Even so, as his choice of title suggests, Malle believed it was important to remain tentative about how much a Westerner could comprehend India.
The resurfacing of "Phantom India" -- seven parts of roughly 51 minutes each, shot over several months in early 1968, which LACMA is screening over the weekend in three parts -- is timely. With India's emergence as a world power, the film has a prophetic quality, for Malle foresaw the country's inevitable modernization and expressed hope that India's profound spirituality, which has impressed many other foreigners, would withstand change.
It is fitting that Malle spent most of his time in the countryside, caught up in the workings of village life, and reserved for the final section, Bombay, a bellwether for metropolitan life today everywhere -- overcrowding, homelessness, pollution, traffic gridlock and an indifferent privileged class.
Although never losing sight of chronic hardship and poverty or the oppressiveness and injustice of the caste system, Malle, with his cameraman Etienne Becker and sound man Jean-Claude Laureux, is able to give himself over to the timelessness of agrarian life in which people live in enviable harmony with nature.
"Phantom India" is no travelogue -- there are no shots of the Taj Mahal or tour of maharajahs' palaces -- yet it's a beautiful, elegant work. In certain idyllic sequences Malle allowed the tempo of life to set the tempo of his film, which is captivating, at times mesmeric in effect, because the entire film is well-paced, much of it actually brisk.
Like many subsequent documentarians, Malle spent considerable time exploring India's richly varied religious life, and he suggested how profoundly sustaining myriad rituals and prayers are in the lives of millions of people. One of the most intriguing segments focuses on those who live on the fringes of Indian society: the aboriginal Bondo people, who face the increasing loss of forest lands; the Jewish community of Cochin, which has never known prejudice but is rapidly dying out; an enclave of Catholic Indians; the well-financed ashram of Pondicherry; and the Toda mountain tribe, which Malle found to be an ideal society facing extinction before his very eyes due to confiscation of its lands.
Ultimately, "Phantom India" is a tribute of Malle's humanity and his skill. It manages to seem free-flowing yet is beautifully shaped and structured -- and it holds interest throughout its marathon running time.
Where: Leo S. Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Parts 1, 2 and 3 screen at 7:30 p.m. Friday; Parts 4 and 5 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday; Parts 6 and 7 at 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Price: $9 general; $6 for museum and AFI members, people older than 62, students. Prices are per night.
Contact: (323) 857-6010