When filming Calcutta in 1968, Louis Malle did not pretend to chase some magic insight into the Indian mind or character. After the camera washes up at a riverside slum, nearly every one of the onscreen residents stares straight into the lens. Eventually Malle and cinematographer Étienne Becker manage to get lost in the crowd, but as an initial statement it’s bracing proof of Malle’s outsider status. There are three face-to-face interviews, apparently all spontaneous. The photography is stark and lush, and the takes are ambling. Nearly every scene is some variety of public happening—construction on a big building, a golf game, a Hindu funeral, a political demonstration—with the camera floating back as spectator.
This documentary received a drubbing upon its release, for what was perceived as a disproportionately downbeat perspective. Regardless of whether or not the director actively sought to push against the 60s trend of ornamentalizing Indian religious traditions, the movie speaks in staid tones, closer to those of a 50s travelogue. Calcutta is neither overtly grave nor celebratory, but the footage is frequently jaw-dropping in its scope and stillness. Key moments (including its bookends) are entrenched in slums; modernization and its grimy consequences take up the lion’s share of footage. The camera gets down and dirty, but its key fascination is the human face, and Malle rarely bothers to translate the words (or songs) of his subjects.
It is an extremely tactile, improvised travel movie; one telephoto shot of the Victoria Memorial feels like a breath of fresh air. At one point Malle says that there are 70-80,000 lepers in the city, and the camera observes a long line of them receiving a free meal on some far-out rockface. One is a former government employee who was denied by his job and his family due to the illness; Malle narrates over his rant briefly before cutting out, and cranking up the volume on the man’s voice. For the first time in the film, viewers will be jarred into realizing that they’re hearing English. The film seems designed to rip up prejudices about exposure to tough images, and to force viewers to literally keep looking—a kind of forcible de-alienation. Given the time and place, it was a loaded gesture.