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Thursday 8 November 2007

Calcutta (1969) Louis Malle

Edited down from thirty hours of footage of India generally, this became a hundred minutes or so of one city only, Calcutta. The focus came from editor Suzanne Baron but the footage was Louis Malle's. He travelled to India without any real specific goal in mind, just to experience the country and get something of it down on film.
We start in the water, where the Hooghly river empties into the ocean, where men wash themselves, their clothes and even their teeth in the muddy water. It's February 1968, so it's long after India had gained its independence, yet long before the resurgence of Calcutta as a city in the 21st century. Louis Malle himself provides a little narration and even acts as human subtitles on occasion, but mostly this is a visual film only.

We see animals everywhere: cows sleeping it off on street corners, herds of goats or water buffaloes driven down the road, people washing elephants. Wherever there aren't animals, there are people as Calcutta demonstrates how it's one of the most overcrowded cities on the planet. People are everywhere, the homeless sleeping in boxes on the street, the crippled sitting or sleeping in the middle of the road for cars to swerve round, begging for a living if they're even awake.

The human suffering in this film is palpable, and all the more obvious because it's commonplace. What we see in one of Mother Theresa's 'dying rooms' is less startling when we realise that it's nothing much out of the ordinary for Calcutta. There's a city within the city though, that works at the other end of the economic scale. The remnants of the British Raj persist through the Victoria Memorial, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club and other such locations that look English, sound English and pretty much are English, even though most of the people there are Indian.

Back in the lower end of things, it's still fascinating to see how everything is done so low tech. People transport goods by piling them on the heads, even down to women and bricks. They're good enough to stack them four or five high and not even hold on. Buildings are built by hand. Rickshaws are commonplace. People travel by train but often just by sitting on the roof, ducking every time they go under a low bridge.

I've talked about how this is a very visual film, but there's plenty to listen to even if we have no concept of the language (or languages) being used. There's a lot of music, not found to add to the soundtrack but as the background or foreground noise of what we're watching. Some is performed music, some mass chanting, plenty just crowd noise that happens to approximate music. There's plenty of other cultural miscellany too, the third quarter of the film at the weekly mass meetings on large open ground being fascinating.

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