A new film about a fascinating chapter in the lives of one of the greatest bands in the world is about the conjunction rather than the preposition.
The Beatles and India isn’t just about the time spent by the John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and their partners and friends in Rishikesh in 1968. Rather, the documentary aims to provide a wider understanding of the band’s engagement with India and the impact their music had on Indians.
Directed by Ajoy Bose and co-directed by Pete Compton, The Beatles and India expands on the research and interviews featured in Bose’s 2018 book Across the Universe. The film retraces the steps leading up to the stay at the ashram run by the spiritual leader Mahesh Yogi in 1968. These include George Harrison’s friendship with sitar legend Ravi Shankar and his interest in Hindustani music and Hinduism.
Among those sharing memories and insights is Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s wife at the time. Boyd accompanied Harrison on his first trip to India in 1966 and the later one with his bandmates in early 1968.
Bose met Boyd in London while working on his book. “I must have been the billionth person to talk to her [about The Beatles in India] but she says I was the first Indian journalist,” Bose recalled. “She really opened up, and we used it as a sort of commentary throughout the film.”
Already global icons before they landed in Rishikesh, the Beatles appear to have grabbed the opportunity for a break from the unrelenting pressures of stardom and the recent death of their manager Brian Epstein as well as gain a better understanding of Mahesh Yogi’s philosophy.
The Rishikesh sojourn was marked by acrimony, scandal and disillusionment over the spiritual instructor’s behaviour. But the visit catalysed the songs that eventually formed The White Album, one of their most acclaimed works.
“Despite the many ironies and paradoxes that had marked their passage to and through India, this amazing journey had also helped the Beatles reach the pinnacle of their career unleashing their creative energies like nothing else could,” 69-year-old Bose writes in Across The Universe. “With the Himalayas looming above and the Ganga flowing below, they had gained paradise and lost it as the modern fairy tale of the four lads from Liverpool reached its closing stages.”
Bose is a political journalist whose book credits include a Mayawati biography titled Behenji. He is also a huge fan of The Beatles. He was commissioned by Penguin Random House India to chronicle the band’s India visit. As he researched the book, the documentary was nowhere in sight.
“I did write the chapters in a way that they could be a script for a feature film,” Bose told Scroll.in. After reading the book, Reynold D’Silva, the producer of the 2017 documentary It Was Fifty Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond, contacted Bose, introduced him to Pete Compton, and set the ball rolling for the production.
“I had never directed a film before, but I had the contacts,” Bose said. Among the people he interviewed was Saeed Naqvi, one of the few Indian journalists to sneak into the ashram in Rishikesh and observe the musicians and the Maharishi from up close.
Actor Kabir Bedi, who had wangled an interview with the Beatles during a previous visit in 1966, revisits that encounter. Biddu, who performed covers of Beatles tunes before launching a successful solo career in the UK, remarks on the paradox of the Beatles heading East even as Indians were trying to go West.
Bose also unearthed a rare All India Radio interview with Harrison when he visited Mumbai in 1966. Another undiscovered gem was that Prabha Dutt, the pioneering Indian journalist, had interviewed the band in 1966.
Some of the people interviewed in The Beatles and India pop up in Paul Saltzman’s Meeting the Beatles in India (2020). The Canadian photographer and filmmaker was at Mahesh Yogi’s ashram at the same time as the Beatles. Saltzman based his documentary on his personal experiences and photographs of the Beatles, which would later serve as one of the few visual records of their stay there.
Another similarity between the films is the absence of any original Beatles music. Among the reasons that songs from the Beatles catalogue rarely feature in movie or documentary soundtracks are steep licensing fees and the assertion of creative control by the holding company Sony/ATV.
While Saltzman got two composers to create a fresh score for his documentary, The Beatles and India producer Reynold D’silva commissioned a companion album through his label Silva Screen Records. The Beatles and India: Songs Inspired by the Film features interpretations by Anoushka Shankar, Soulmate, Vishal Dadlani, Kissnuka, Benny Dayal, Dhruv Ghanekar and Karsh Kale, among others.
Among the tribute tunes are Mother Nature’s Son, Revolution, Sexy Sadie, Dear Prudence and Child of Nature. Nikhil D’Souza sings a stirring tribute to Lennon’s India, India.
“Using the Beatles songs would have wiped out our budget,” Bose observed. “If I could, I would really like to have used Lennon’s India, India and Child of Nature, which he later reworked into Jealous Guy.”
All these decades after the glorious music, interest in the Fab Four remains high. Every now and then, a new update from the Beatleverse reminds us of their lasting impact: a new album and a book by Paul McCartney; Peter Jackson’s upcoming documentary The Beatles: Get Back, about the tense recording sessions for the band’s final album Let It Be; the discovery of an unreleased song by George Harrison and Ringo Starr, titled Radhe Shaam, by British Indian journalist Suresh Joshi in a loft in Birmingham.
While the significance of the Beatles visit to India hasn’t been disputed, the question of whether they were early practitioners of cultural appropriation or well-meaning pop stars seeking enlightenment is still up for debate.
“We can be rational or laugh about it, but the fact is that a strange sequence of events drew them to India,” Bose observed. These include Harrison’s involvement with Ravi Shankar and Hinduism, the arrival of Mahesh Yogi in the lives of the Beatles, and the growing engagement with Eastern philosophies in the West in the 1960s.
“It wasn’t just a fad or something exotic, it was a genuine feeling,” Bose argued. “Similarly, the Beatles were our introduction to a new kind of Westerner and specifically, a new Britain. They made the Indian Westernised middle class realise the value of their own culture and Hindustani classic music. The world has changed now, and there isn’t such a vast chasm between West and East any more. But The Beatles were the pioneers in building a cultural bridge and the global culture we have today.”
The documentary has been shown at the Vallidolid International Film Festival in Vallidolid, Spain, and the In-Edit Festival in Barcelona. While it’s out on DVD and the streaming site 101 Films, The Beatles and India isn’t available in India yet.
“We are surprisingly running into a wall here,”Bose said. “We haven’t got a platform on board yet.”