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This great documentary is both poetic and political but also interesting and informative
I learned in many ways as much about Western prejudice and as I did about India, and Malle is quite aware of that in the film. He will often question his own views, even admit when he was wrong on a cation. He does not try to hide that he is a communist and it does not drag the film down (as it does in so many Godard films). Malle's narration was never pseudo intellectual and often startling honest.
Phantom India is in seven parts and they are very different.
The first is philosophical about the limits of the camera and the documentary. It sets the rules for the future. They are not going to work with a script, they are just going to film what happens, each day and they are not going to talk to the intellectuals of India, but focus rather on the general population (they break that rule again and again).
The second one is the most poetic one. They visit a school of traditional religious dancers and they are so fascinated by it that they are stuck there almost the whole episode. And I understand them perfectly. It was hard to take ones eye of the dancers.
The third episode is mostly about the Hindu religion. Malle has problems with a lot of what he sees here. This is probably the weakest episode in the series, dragged down by his own intolerance toward religion (even though he does have many valid points).
The first part of the fourth episode is probably the most beautiful of the series. Malle and his crew (of two) kind of loose them self in India. They forget to film and stop seeing the point in doing it, only occasionally taking up the camera when they remember that they are there to work. Malle's narration is like a poem.
The second part of the episode is more political and lays the ground for the fifth episode, which is about the caste system. Malle does not try to hide his distaste for the caste system and attracts it fiercely, but still he does not loose sight of the fact that he is making a documentary, not propaganda, and he give us very interesting information about the diversity within the caste system.
The sixth episode is the most structured one. Here one feels like Malle had a script, or at least wrote a script, based on the material he had filmed. I personally thought this was the most interesting episode. It is about small communities which are on the fringes of Indian society, starting with the Bonda people (wild, ancient tribal people) and then visiting a dying Jewish community, catholic Indians, a rich ashram community and the Toda tribe (which counted only 800 people when the film was made). Malle thinks the Toda tribe is the most ideal of these communities. I can see how it would appeal to a leftist hippie, with their free love and no name for sex but I have my doubts.
The seventh episode mainly focuses on Bombay and you really get the feeling how different Bombay is from the rest of India. It is like stepping into another world. Malle hints that Bombay is the sign of what will come to India (even though he hopes for a communist revolution) and if so then India and the world will loose a lot.
I have never been to India so I can not verify if this is an honest depiction of the country and I even don't know if it is possible to make a honest documentary. It did anger many Indians, who thought Malle focused to much on the poverty of the country, but such things are always going to be sensitive. What I do know is that Phantom India touched me deeply, both as a lover of films and of different cultures. This is a landmark documentary which should not be missed.
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