In 1968, French New Wave director Louis Malle went to India with a two-man crew and no agenda but to “follow the camera” – to go where his eyes led him. They stayed 4 months and shot 30 hours of beautiful, color-saturated footage, the bulk of which became Malle’s masterpiece, “Phantom India”. “Calcutta” was made from the rushes of “Phantom India”, a 105 minute microscope to the 378 minute macroscope.
Watching “Calcutta” is like dreaming through a kaleidoscope. Scenes shift, but at any given time are perfect – in how they’re framed, how they’re lit, how they’re situated, what they capture. Like India, where “acceptance” reigns, “Calcutta” exists in it’s own orbit where all incongruities are in harmony and any of the struggles of filming are transcended by the recurrence of momentary bliss. The footage is utterly transporting.
And it’s beautiful – especially now, in HD 2010. The richness of the film, the paint-like pigment of the colors feels like a treasure, like an ancient tapestry glittering in a museum. Through that lens we see the sweep of Indian culture in the late 60’s, from the gorgeous aristocrats like exotic Jackie O’s out at the races, to some serious OG “Slumdog Millionaire” shit. But the majority is in-between, great gatherings caught up in some cultural imperative: Parades of effigies lit by torchlight until they’re thrown in the river at dawn; swarms of Indian men filling the city parks with emphatic drum circles and chanting; protesting women marching by Parliament and straight into waiting Police buses…
Other fragments: a man on a city sidewalk getting a face massage while staring down the camera; riders on the tops of the trains ducking under the overpass; the red-painted feet of a woman being cremated by her family; the repetitive perfection of a clay tea cup maker shaping the lip; hogs in the slums with their snouts deep in shit-water; and the stares, endless stares, as though the camera had no casing, just the exposed prism of glass lens and reflective mirror.
It goes on and on, the turning kaleidoscope. A lot of it is charming, plenty of it intense. But the spirit of it, the effect is casual magnificence, effortless magic. It pulses and reverberates with the extraordinariness of a place and time, as spellbinding now as it so evidently was to the filmmakers.