(link to YouTube clip of video)

A harsh sound rips into the viewer’s ear, the sound of the teacher beating out the taal on the mani kattai. The montage commences with a close-up of the young students of Kalakshetra, with rigid backs in strident postures, in faded yellow kurtas. It is a moment of success for Malle; he has captured perfectly the solemn atmosphere of the famed Bharatanatyam class in Madras, an atmosphere which sometimes, if not often, is accompanied by a gravity of expression too mature to suit the faces of children. Aptly, Malle films from the back; the children’s faces are turned away.

L’Inde fantôme: Reflexions sur un voyage, a documentary by French film director Louis Malle, was filmed in a mere five months or so in 1968. The second part of the work, “Things Seen in Madras,” has sparked little discourse owing to its limited visibility and is worth noticing due to Malle’s special attention devoted to classical dance.

Foreign films’ presentation of the classical Indian arts, especially performing arts such as music and dance, are most often limited to diluted representations of popular culture. It is hence a rare example that arises in Malle’s work– a selectively-compiled account of the classes at the famed Kalkshetra institute in Madras, presented in fine detail.

Focusing on Malle’s cinematic moments is a wise choice, for dialogues in Malle’s work are sparse. Moreover, Malle’s artistic choices are in themselves a work of art. Continuing on from the aforementioned scene, as three young students practice in near-perfect sync, Malle turns his camera to the girl at the front of the three. She is wearing a white kurta, and the beauty of the moment is in the fact that the little girl’s eyes, aside from her deep noir pupils, are as white as her dress. It is almost as if the girl, in a moment of childish vanity, has matched her eyes to her dress. Or, perhaps, it is Malle’s way of drawing attention to the astonishingly intricate expressions of the young dancer as her eyes move deftly from side to side. If this was indeed Malle’s reason behind this cinematic choice, it can be said that he was successful in identifying the primary aspect that, in the ancient Indian performing arts, often distinguishes an inexperienced dancer focusing only on physicalities to a mature dancer portraying stories to the audience– the face itself, and its curves, its subtleties, its language without words.

As Malle cuts to a shot of the teacher and her accompanist, the teacher’s eyes are gentle but firm. She sways side to side with the music to indicate movements to her young learners. The shot is filmed from an angle, keeping both the female teacher and the male accompanist within the frame, with space for little else except the white walls in the same scene. One can only guess at Malle’s intention to highlight these two individuals at this particular moment. It could be that he saw in the art form of Bharatanatyam what was lacking heavily in the social atmosphere of the country at the time– unspoken, unasserted equality between the genders. Owing to the intricate storytelling present within the dance form, male and female dancers often portray characters of the opposite gender, both within religious and secular themes. Thus, the unity in that both the female teacher and the male accompanist are seated on an equal level, both wear the colour white, and the teacher is in a leading role with the accompanist playing the mani kattai with utmost focus; moments like these make Malle’s scarce use of dialogue appropriate to such works because the film itself speaks volumes.

It is also admirable how Malle devotes adequate amounts of screen time and artistic focus to all aspects of nritta.

Aside from the practice of physical movements that require intense coordination between one’s mind and body, a particular moment of recitation captured by Malle warrants mention. It is a close-up shot of the face of the young dancer in white. The frame is half-filled with the solemn face of the dancer, the negative space by the austere white of the walls, as she recites the syllables taught by the teacher in a speedy fashion. The simplicity of the moment provides an opportunity to admire the raw hard work and the passion behind the serious expression of so young a child. This simplicity is mirrored in the aforementioned details of the atmosphere that Malle chooses to include within the shot. To concisely elaborate on Malle’s well-rounded attempt at providing his foreign viewers with a glimpse into the dance form, there are also moments of the silent but poignant relationship between the teacher and the student, as the little girls mould their fingers in an earnest attempt to form the simhamukha mudra, or the lion, that their teacher patiently shows them.

The few muted yet rich tones that grace Malle’s visual artistry are mostly lent by the dancers themselves, through their attire of colourful sarees. This, in particular, perhaps may not be to Malle’s merit; after all, he chose to observe an ordinary day within the walls of Kalakshetra, and nothing else. And yet, it plays to his favour– colour is at the heart of Malle’s film. The black of the kajal lining the dancers’ eyes emphasises their drishti bhedas, or eye movements. As mentioned before, the ‘austere white’ walls of the dance halls do not distract from the purity of the classical art being practised within them. The varied vibrancy of the dancers’ sarees and kurtas conveys them as flowers, still in preparation to one day bloom into the artists they are endeavouring to become. Malle captures not just the rich dance form of Bharatanatyam in his limited montage but also leaves the screen with a reminiscence of the passion and precision it demands.

– Aliyah Banerjee, Round Rock High School, Texas


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