Louis Malle's 'Calcutta' - A Film That India Banned But Was Celebrated The World Over!

By Nita Deshmukh. Posted on March 14, 2016

Indians have a thin skin when it comes to films that show the dark side of our country & society. While the western gaze is a little too focused on the exotic, spiritual & poor side of India, we find it exploitative.

When Louis Malle was editing Phantom India, he found that the footage shot in Calcutta was so diverse, intense, and haunting that it deserved its own film. Louis’s documentary Calcutta is a chaotic portrait of a city swallowed up in social and political turmoil. Since Calcutta was not an ancient Indian city, but was created as a service center for British imperial interests, Malle in his documentary criticized the British government for creating the gruesome, inhuman conditions .

Louis Malle was one of the first people to get out on the streets and make a movie about life as it existed in Calcutta. The documentary is largely a visual tour, focusing on the people, the streets, and the slums. Malle adds his own narration and comments to the visuals. His opinions were based on his observations, interactions , historical records and available statistics. While one of the most upsetting aspect of the movie is the extreme poverty that he captured with his camera, Malle also revealed the rich culture of the city through its traditions, ceremonies and local celebrations. He also compares the dynamic political and social culture order at that time with the social aspects of France. Calcutta fearlessly illustrates the contrast between the rich and poor, brutality and aftermath of colonialism.

The honest and frank account of Calcutta by Malle, however, created a  huge uproar after it was telecast on BBC in 1970. As per records, the Indian community of Britain sent letters of protest to the BBC and expressed outrage at the films' gruesome depiction of poverty and filth. To which Malle replied "Well, if you're filming in India, what do you do, chase away the beggars? They're all over the place”.  BBC refused to stop broadcasting Calcutta and in reaction India expelled the BBC's New Delhi bureau.

Despite the controversy Calcutta was well received in the western world, where they helped spark an interest in Indian culture and draw attention to the poverty in India and especially in Calcutta. The documentary was official selection to the Cannes Film Festival. Malle later claimed his documentary on India was his favorite film.


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