The roots of Calcutta lie in Malle's visit to India in 1967, where he played cultural ambassador to present a series of French films, including his own 1963 feature The Fire Within. Fascinated by the people and the religions and the richness of the cultures of the country, he quickly raised money in France for a documentary and returned to India with a skeleton crew of two: cameraman Etienne Becker (son of French director Jacques Becker) and sound engineer Jean-Claude Laureaux (who continued to work with Malle to the end of his career). Malle had made his first splash with a documentary, The Silent World (1956), a collaboration with Jacques-Yves Cousteau that won the Golden Palm at Cannes and the Oscar® for Best Documentary, but apart from a short film about the 1962 Tour de France (Vive le tour), he had not returned to non-fiction until he embarked on this ambitious and personal project. "My proposition was that we would start in Calcutta, look around and eventually shoot," Malle explained to Philip French in an interview. "No plans, no commitments, no lighting equipment, no distribution commitments of any kind."
According to Malle, they shot what interested them and what spoke to them. "It was completely improvised. We were sort of witnesses, but we never pretended we were part of it or even understood it." After six months of traveling and filming, Malle returned to France with over 40 hours of 16mm footage, which he edited into eight separate films. The first was Calcutta, his impressionistic essay of the city where the journey began and the only feature-length production to come out of his odyssey. The other seven were combined into the epic documentary Phantom India, which was shown on French TV.
Calcutta is largely a visual tour, focusing on the people on the streets and in the slums, interspersed with narration from Malle himself. He doesn't attempt to explain, merely frame the scenes with brief history lessons and cultural comments, and offer a few statistics. The rhythm of the film seems to arise from the culture itself and scenes take on a life of their own.
He doesn't try to be invisible and his subjects routinely stare back into the camera. Some are curious, some are wary, some stare dead-eyed back into the lens, as if challenging the filmmaker and the viewer. "Very quickly I realized that these looks at the camera were both disturbing and true, and we should never pretend we weren't intruders."
The most startling aspect of the production is the extreme poverty and squalor that he captures with his camera. Calcutta opens on the contrast between the rich and poor, the wealth and opulence in the midst of poverty, and the legacy of British colonialism, and he returns for a more devastating exploration in the film's final act. "40% of Calcutta's inhabitants live in what experts call subhuman conditions," he observes as he takes us into the slums, where garbage is piled in the alleys, animal excrement floats in stagnant open sewers, and lepers are quarantined with their families (who, forbidden to leave their quarter, invariably become infected and continue the cycle).
Yet this vibrant portrait also reveals a rich culture of religious traditions observed in ceremonies and celebrations, and a dynamic political and social culture where citizens and students unite to actively protest government repression, an aspect in tune with the social culture of France at the time. Malle returned to Paris just in time to experience the events of May 1968, when student protests and worker strikes paralyzed the county, and he began editing the film in the wake of his active solidarity with the protestors.
The poverty, however, became the most controversial aspect of the film when it was shown on the BBC in 1970. The Indian community of Britain sent letters of protest to the BBC, which sparked a protest from the government of India, which expressed outrage at the film's portrait of urban squalor and filth ("Well, if you're filming in India, what do you do, chase away the beggars? They're all over the place," answers Malle). When the BBC refused to stop broadcasting the series, India expelled the BBC's New Delhi bureau. Calcutta (and the entire Phantom India cycle) was more well received in the rest of the western world, where they helped spark an interest in Indian culture and draw attention to the poverty in India's biggest cities, and especially in Calcutta. Now, forty years later, an improved economy has eased the poverty and living conditions, but Calcutta remains a vivid and gripping snapshot of the city in 1968, a portrait of unemployment, overcrowding, filth, and poverty run rampant with a minimum of commentary. The eyes of the inhabitants, staring back at Malle's unblinking camera, provide enough commentary on their own.
Producer: Louis Kastner
Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Louis Malle
Cinematography: Etienne Becker
Film Editing: Suzanne Baron
Cast: Louis Malle (Narrator).
by Sean Axmaker