CALCUTTA: THE LOST CITY
When Louis Malle returned to France after five months of shooting in India, it was May 1968, and the country had exploded into chaos. The student revolt had turned into a general strike all over Paris, and everything, including the film labs where Malle was planning to work, was closed. It was certainly ironic: while Malle was capturing images that would paint a socioeconomic portrait of a faraway land, he was cut off from the political realities of his own country. “I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on in Paris,” he recalled, “and after those enchanted months of drifting around India, I was very reluctant to come home. I was simply going to refuel, look at my footage, and go back.”
Instead, Malle found himself caught up in the country’s political whirlwind. One of the more commercially popular of the French new wavers, after such films as Zazie dans le métro (1960) and Le feu follet (1963), Malle had been tapped to be a juror at the Cannes Film Festival. But, goaded on by his friends François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, he helped persuade his fellow jurors to call off the festival—in solidarity with the strikers and to protest French culture minister André Malraux’s firing of the beloved Cinémathèque française programmer Henri Langlois—even making the announcement himself. With such distractions, it was weeks before he and his editor, Suzanne Baron, saw their India footage. And when they did, they found there was just too much that they wanted to keep from his three weeks in Calcutta. So they decided to edit it into a separate feature.
The most striking difference between Phantom India and Calcutta (both 1969) is in the pacing: whereas the former is made up of unhurried, contemplative passages, the latter is a straightforward plunge into a nightmarish world of poverty, sickness, and political turmoil. Calcutta surveys, with ceaseless movement, the myriad desperations of this West Bengali capital city, from its swarming streets and bridges to its shantytowns and filthy back alleys. Like Bombay, the port town of Calcutta was built by the English for colonial needs—and after Great Britain’s departure, widespread violence and famine led to the city’s stagnation. Malle unflinchingly explores the slums, where 40 percent of the population lives, and where animal excrement contaminates the water and piles of uncollected garbage block the streets. But he doesn’t just witness these conditions; he also critiques the class structures that help perpetuate the misery: from the exorbitant tenement rates demanded by landowners to the indifferent upper classes, shown whiling away the hours at the racetrack and the Royal Calcutta Golf Club.
As with Phantom India, the film was criticized for focusing only on the city’s misery, yet Malle intended this snapshot of a tumultuous place and time to provoke and shock. Though his next fiction films—Murmur of the Heart (1972) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974)—would bring him back to his homeland, his experience as an outsider in India would inform all of his subsequent work, especially his dispatches from another unfamiliar new outpost: America.
Source : criterion.com