Phantom India: A Look at Castes
1969, France, Louis Malle, 51 min.
Presented in association with The Criterion Collection
Free to Members
The massive 1969 documentary Phantom India is a seven-part portrait of India. It serves as an investigation into the country’s sociopolitical landscape, traditions, and people, as well as a furthering of Filmmaker Louis Malle’s self-discovery as a non-fiction filmmaker.
This fifth episode explores the rigid Indian caste system. Malle details the various levels of caste that actually - as he reminds his audience - break down into thousands of smaller subdivisions. The film visits women assigned different functions at the communal well, based on their respective castes, and also the social outcasts known as the Harijans (or untouchables) and a lower-rung caste of village washermen known as dhobis.
As Malle details the history of the caste system on the soundtrack, he travels with his crew to the Red Fort fabric factory in Delhi, and then to a Bombay shantytown, where a group of mourners celebrate a death with choruses of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" The episode wraps with a depiction of a local village sport and a trip to the Panchayat.