I’m not a patriotic sort of person. I often find fault in India and her people. Yet, whenever I hear a foreigner criticising my country, I rise to her defence. I can say anything about India; it's my country; but how dare an outsider point a finger on us.
I'm especially suspicious of Westerners who claim to love India and then go on dissecting her from a sensibility which is Western to the core. That’s why I’m suspicious of William Dalrymple, though I cannot really find fault in him. That was the same problem I encountered with Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City.’ Through the book about Bombay is ostensibly written by an Indian, even though he grew up abroad, the sensibility Mehta applies is out-and-out Western.
This was the same reason I was very apprehensive about French director Louis Malle’s documentary' 'Louis Malle’s India' (apprently, a part of his documentary series on India, ‘Phantom India’). The fact that the series of documentaries Malle did for BBC in 1969, met with severe criticism by the Indian government and was eventually banned, did not help the matter.
Now that I finally saw the film, it has left me with a mixed feeling. (I chanced upon it while surfing the net. It was in Google video, and I could download it easily in mp4 format. I had found a real treasure.)
Like most foreigner visiting India and enamoured by its 'mysticism,' Malle’s India too is rural and poor, still untouched by the spoils of industrial revolution. (If you accuse ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as ‘poverty porn’ then I wonder, what would you call this one!!)
Narrated by Malle himself in a French-accented English, there is a point in the film where Malle actually compares the post-industrial Western world with the agrarian India, saying that probably the Indian farmer in the midst of nature is happier than the Western man living in their isolated materialistic world. What a cliché?
Seeing in today’s context, in a progressively globalised India, the film, as grainy as it looks, feels strangely eerie. This is not the India we know. No. This is the same India we know, but unlike what Malle claims (that the country never changes!), India has changed. There's poverty still; the shanty town Malle photographs in Mumbai has only increased. Yet India has come of age. India does not need anyone’s pity.
Talking about cliché, the film abounds in it. There are priest and sadhus, temples and ghats, the caste system and the filth... There is an extended scene of a group of vultures feasting on a dead buffalo... the fishermen of Kerala... a man pushing a sewing machine on the highway... You know what to expect. Exotica!!!
Yet, it's heartening to see how Malle refuses to judge his subjects. He refuses to put the people he has captured in his camera into perspective. He let them be and captures what he sees in his travels in India as it is. In the beginning of the film, the narrator, Malle, says, “Everywhere we go, we see the eyes stare. We have come to look at them (the Indians). Now, they look at us. In all this, which one of us is the voyeur? ... Their eyes focused on us, focused on the camera’s Cyclops eye... The Indians watch us watching them, and now they watch you (Malle’s Western audience.)
This is where Malle’s photographic journey of India finds a great leveller. His Western vision is a two-way street; it does not look at India with wonder and awe, as a perennial outsider, but tries its best to be part of it, though the filmmaker fails more than he succeeds. But there’s a beauty in the failure too.
The film is here.
The Wikipedia entry on Louis Malle