Louis Malle's Calcutta (1969) is comprised of footage left over from the shooting of Phantom India, a seven-part TV documentary that aired in France and England in 1969. The former is a fascinating piece of ethnographic filmmaking, but mostly for all the wrong reasons: every difficult, unanswerable question about the ethical obligation of the outsider artist and the voyeuristic nature of film recording is posed by Calcutta (often, one senses, inadvertently). It purports to be an unvarnished document of a poverty-stricken metropolis in flux, but really it's a document of how artists try to lend themselves legitimacy by exoticizing the "Other" while neglecting to explore the object of their study with any empathy or respect.
Admittedly, I haven't yet seen Phantom India and hope to do soon, though Calcutta doesn't make me especially eager. My consternation only grew upon learning that the Indian government and many British Indians protested Phantom India for providing only a seedy, one-sided depiction of the country and asked French television and the BBC not to air it (to no avail). Malle himself also called Phantom India his most personal film, which paradoxically seems like part of the problem: Calcutta, at least, evokes the morbidly fascinated gaze of a privileged foreigner, undertaking an act of artistic tourism as a sort of self-therapy, with hardly an attempt to bestow agency upon the people depicted onscreen.
The footage in Calcutta, typically shown without context provided either by voiceover or onscreen text, is loosely organized into broad themes: food, street art, religious practices, political demonstrations, and the like. More accurately, the organizing themes could be posited as poverty, squalor, cacophony, and desperation. Throughout the film, subjects stare directly back at the camera with looks of confrontation or uncertainty, clearly wary of Malle and his small French crew, which consisted of cinematographer Étienne Becker and sound recordist Jean-Claude Laureux. If they filmed any shots of Indian people laughing or engaging with the filmmakers, those shots are conspicuously absent from Calcutta.
Nowhere is this more unnerving than a scene set in one of the "dying rooms" in an Indian temple, where the extremely poor and ailing go to live out their last days (or, more rarely, to recover and return to the streets). Here, we watch the starving, the emaciated, the defenseless try to shield themselves from the camera's gaze, clearly unable or unwilling to consent to being filmed. It's questionable, first of all, what kind of insights we might gain into the city or people of Kolkata (the Bengali spelling which the city officially reverted to in 2001) by watching some of its most unfortunate denizens on the verge of death; regardless, ogling them via camera and denying them any agency in such a state is an unforgivable breach of ethics.
Only rarely does Calcutta allow its onscreen subjects to speak, and when they do their voice drops out and Malle speaks over them in French, translating their words—a quite literal example of how the film deprives Kolkata residents of their voice. (Subtitling would have been preferable, even if there's still the potential for mistranslation in that case.) Elsewhere, Malle's voiceover explanations are provocative but dubious. He does provide historical background on the nature of Kolkata as an outpost of the British empire, stating: "The British East India Company systematically exploited and exhausted the riches of Bengal... This influx of money allowed the Industrial Revolution and English capitalism to get underway." This is a crucial moment, acknowledging that the indigence of modern-day Kolkata is one of many repercussions of European colonialism. But nowhere else is the poverty we see suggested to be a consequence of historical injustice, and Malle never acknowledges that he, as a French outsider getting funding from his country to document these people, is inherently part of the same system. He seems invested in the plight of the people onscreen only as an object of academic study, a piece of evidence to support his thesis that colonialism has led to the filthy, deprived, unknowable city we see here, but not as a vibrant (if contentious) community with countless human stories to tell.
Malle's abstruse relationship to the city also comes through in his voiceover explanations of its fractious political state. The Parliament overthrew a left-centrist Communist government in 1967, he says, and now the two dominant Communist parties are either aligned with or resistant to Soviet ideologies. Both parties, Malle claims, rebuked Maoism, though the smaller Naxalite party follows Mao—and as a Maoist himself, Malle seems to describe them with some lionization. All of this is fascinating context, and in a 109-minute documentary perhaps Malle was not able to go any deeper; but it's also hardly exhaustive and furthers the depiction of Kolkata as a messy, unresolvable place that's teeming with gritty turmoil.
There's no doubt that Calcutta has many arresting images; it does provide visceral insight into the city's customs, sights, and sounds in the late 1960s. But we always sense that we're only getting part of the story: this depiction of Kolkata is fashioned precisely the way Malle wants it, with visual data structured to support the film's presuppositions. Of course, this is inherent to ethnographic filmmaking—the author always plays an overriding role in shaping the depiction of the subjects—which is why the best and most honest documentaries of this kind usually acknowledge the mediating role of the artists/ethnographers. In Jaguar (1967), for example, French filmmaker Jean Rouch cast three men from Niger and asked them to come up with their own narrative centering around their migration to modern-day Ghana, creating a singular blend of ethnography and fiction in which the "actors" onscreen play an important role in determining the outcome of the project. (On the soundtrack, these men, no longer playing fictional roles, also comment on the action and their production experience, adding yet another layer of self-reflexive subjectivity.) One may also think of the ethnographic films of David and Judith MacDougall, such as The Wedding Camels (1980), which observes the dialogues and relationships of the Turkana people in Kenya with very little overt intervention. These films seek to truly understand another community by offering the people onscreen agency and empowerment. Calcutta makes almost no such attempt.
The film is, in other words, a powerful case study in the ethics of ethnography: is recording film an inherently voyeuristic act? Should anything be "off-limits" when it comes to depicting a foreign community? What are the power dynamics in the relationship between author and subject? The questions are fascinating to ponder, but that's largely because Calcutta is so dubious in its approach and uncomfortable in its effect. Near the end of the film, Malle turns his attention to Tamil immigrants from southern India, whom he claims live in squatter settlements in "inhuman" conditions; they are struck, he says, to be considered with such pity, though again he provides these words for them, disallowing them to speak for themselves. If they are objects of pity, that's only because Malle forces them to be: the lingering gaze of the camera, the long panning shots across mud and crumbling buildings, the abrasive soundtrack, give the audience no freedom to consider them any other way. They could just as easily be objects (or subjects) of resilience or uniqueness or humanity or complexity. But, because such a depiction doesn't fit into Malle's intentions, Calcutta does not make room in its bustling frame for such an opportunity.
Original Release Date: April 16, 1969
US Release: November 1971
US Distributor: New Yorker Films
Director: Louis Malle
Producer: Louis Kastner
Writer: Louis Malle
Cinematographer: Étienne Becker
Editor: Suzanne Baron