India Song

By Ken McMullen

Marguerite Duras’s India Song not only sets its narrative in a lost world, the pre-2nd World War French diplomatic community in Calcutta, but is also an example of a lost film form, a form that has been overwhelmed by speed/action/cliché. One of the things, amongst the many, that makes the film unique, and therefore difficult for some, is its use of non-sync sound, in the creation of a dramatic reconstruction which slowly reveals, layer upon layer, the intense incestuous feelings experienced by a group of French Diplomats. They are holed up in the Embassy, whilst outside a leper, a figure of fascination and dread whom we never see, sings her chant. The diplomats’ fear of leprosy is a cathartic mirror of their own forbidden passions, eating away at their privileged existence in this limp tropical world. We see all this in a large mirror which, for much of the time, fills the screen, framing and dominating the action. We hear the protagonists talked about; we never see them talk.

India Song is decadent, visually repetitive, overtexted and singularly lacking in action and humour, It may or may not be at least one hour too long. Mme Duras was once reported to have slept through the entire film, and when I first saw it, in the Camden Plaza (now gone) I turned round at the end to find I was the only one left, and that even my girl-friend, a rather gangly girl from Glossop, had hoofed it not only out of the cinema, but out of the country... I never saw her again! Later, I heard she had converted to the Bhagwan that very night, and now was wearing orange and living in Bombay.

At one memorable screening a well-known British critic was reported to have sat crossed-legged throughout, facing not the screen but the audience. At another, a major force in the British film industry, whose name cannot be mentioned here (but can be supplied in confidence to interested readers) sat sucking his thumb, blinking his eyes, and uttering the word ‘Mama!’ every time he thought something was going to happen.

One TV channel broadcast it late at night (at (2am). It was a disaster for India Song lovers, for they broadcast it backwards, with few of the minute audience spotting the India Song stories go on and on... How to get rid of unwanted visitors: sit them down and put on India Song, explaining that you have the six hour version... How to stop insomnia... How to slow down when eating.


After the Camden Plaza incident I returned to see the film again the following night... Why

India Song had begun to haunt me, and, as I was to find out later, I wasn’t alone.

In fact I was in very good company... One of the film’s admirers was Stuart Hood, novelist, thinker, writer on the media, and former Controller of BBC TV. Together we began to show the film to film students. The immediate reaction was always the same - irritation with the pace and boredom with the subject matter... But these students were both bright and maturing swiftly. Inevitably, a large number began to ask to see the film again... its seductive power had begun to draw on them as they began to write their own first films. Duras’s text seemed to touch a lostness inside them. Its non-sync form offered a wonderful example of what could be achieved with meagre resources. Its use of music - haunting tangos and the like - evocatively suggested so much out of frame intrigue. Its mirrored images, first experienced as repetitive, now appeared both elegant and mysterious. Its multilayered text, at first impenetrable, now drew them to viewing after viewing, revealing as it did a depth and a range of nuance that was rare in contemporary culture.

Thus India Song became one of the most seminal films of these classes. Now these classes themselves are part of a lost world... Gone the British Raj and the diplomatic presence in Calcutta... Gone the French New Wave, and its questioning of the possibilities of kinetic narrative... Gone to those film classes, though whenever I meet students from that period India Song inevitably enters the conversation.

One day, the contemporary religion of ‘Action and Realism’ will similarly pass away, and when we look around for things to take its place, India Song will attract new admirers as more adventurous explorations of cinematic form again grab the imagination of adventurous new writers and directors, some of them, perhaps, already waiting in the wings.

Now, sadly, Marguerite Duras has gone too. I met her once, at the Montreal Film Festival. As she was in North America, close to that New World whose images so dominate our screens, she was convinced there was a gunman at every street corner, and that at any moment she would be caught in a shoot out. We ushered her through the streets, to and from the hotel, assuring her that nothing of that kind was likely to happen. On the day she was due to leave the Festival, she came down into the hotel lobby, on her way to breakfast. A gunman was holding up the staff and the guests. in an audacious daylight robbery. Such is the power of the imagination!

Ken McMullen is the producer, director and co-writer of Resistance, Ghost Dance, Zina, Partition and 1871, as well as numerous documentaries about the arts and artists. He teaches at the London College of Printing