Passages to India: India as Seen by Outsiders
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Passages to India: India as Seen by Outsiders

Eat Pray Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel are just the most recent instances of a cinematic trend that began in the silent era: the use of India by foreign filmmakers as exotic setting and spiritual metaphor, a place of both visual splendour and existential terror.

A scene from Fritz Lang's 1959 film The Indian Tomb 

TIFF's recent provocative survey, designed to accompany our concurrent Satyajit Ray retrospective, explored the various ways eight directors have made their own “passages to India,” which range in tone from meditative documentary to full-on Orientalist artifice.

Though Hollywood had its inevitable infatuation with the country of maharajahs and mystics (e.g., The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Gunga Din, Bhowani Junction) and the British colonialist venture on the subcontinent bequeathed a legacy of India-set films (A Passage to India, Gandhi, et al.), it was French cinema that most insistently employed India to its own allegorical ends. Just as Roland Barthes and Chris Marker found in Japan an “empire of signs,” in India French filmmakers discovered a land at once ancient and timeless, its spiritual elusiveness providing abundant metaphorical possibilities: for personal regeneration, the dissolution of identity, a search for authenticity, the lassitude of desire. Beginning with Jean Renoir’s The River—which was shot at the culmination of India’s struggle for independence, but disregards political issues in favour of the eternal cycle of life and death, loss and renewal—French films set in India tend to scant historical events as they arrogate and aestheticize the country’s oft-invoked “mysteries” to fashion metaphors of European existential dilemma and self-discovery. Louis Malle, in his Phantom India, cloaks this impulse in the guise of documentary observation (Roberto Rossellini, whose profound documentary-fiction India, Matri Bumhi is included here, deemed Malle’s portraits of India too negative and one-sided, lacking in compassion), while modernist French filmmakers such as Marguerite Duras, Alain Corneau and Benoît Jacquot find in the sweltering entropy of the subcontinent signifiers of individual dissolution, their protagonists’ sense of time, being, and incident (Duras), of the past and personal identity (Corneau, Jacquot) undone amidst “la chaleur, la terreur,” as Duras characterized it in India Song.

Marguerite Duras' India Song 

Though Jacquot began his filmmaking career as an assistant to Duras, his vision of India in L’Intouchable is utterly different from his mentor’s. Duras’ is an interior India, a psychological state or idée conjured in French villas and palais replete with modernist hall of mirrors, while Jacquot’s is a harsh, mystical terrain, shot documentary-style on location at the holy city of Varanasi, formerly Benares (a site also explored in one of the earliest French films about India—Alfred Chaumel’s silent 1929 The Hindu Soul—and by another film in this series: Robert Gardner’s intent, intense documentary Forest of Bliss, which chronicles twenty-four hours in the city’s streets and crematoria). Corneau’s Nocturne indien resembles Jacquot’s film in many ways—it, too, chronicles a European’s journey to India to search for an elusive person, a pursuit that transforms into a journey of self-discovery—but Corneau foregoes the Camusian-Calvinoesque tone of the Antonio Tabucchi novel on which his film is based for one closer to Duras, with flashes of premonitory and reiterative montage and an enveloping sense of inanition. And just as Duras uses Beethoven’s fourteenth Diabelli Variation in India Song to evoke death and absence, Corneau’s troubling employment of Schubert’s String Quintet associates it with both affliction and loss, while his polyglot audioscape and attention to the bande sonore have an affinity with Duras’ carefully worked soundtrack of disembodied voices.


A still from Black Narcissus 

Like Duras with India Song, for Black Narcissus Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger similarly created a dreamlike India on an English soundstage rather than bothering to venture to the subcontinent; as in the Duras, the film’s utter artifice intensifies the sense of stanched passion in a cloistral setting. But as feverish and stylized as Narcissus may be, it cannot exceed Fritz Lang’s late excursion into Technicolor exotica with his two-part, self-titled “Indian Epic” of The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, whose archaic Orientalist clichés—as Philip Horne catalogues, “exotic dancers, sinister priests, sexual passion, torture, dungeons, lepers, gurus, elephants aplenty, etc.”—are more preposterous than objectionable in their delirious blatancy. If Lang transforms India into a realm of florid fantasy, even in its actuality the country remains for many foreign filmmakers less a reality than a recalcitrant cipher and incarnation of Eastern irrationalism, peopled by symbolic figures whose elusiveness or “uncertainty”—e.g., the beggar woman who haunts the heroine in India Song, the unknown Indian father in L’Intouchable, the grotesque clairvoyant in Nocturne indien—induce existential quandary in the films’ European visitors. The latter are “in search of a shadow,” to quote Tabucci, but the shadow lies within.

JAMES QUANDT

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