In 1968, a young Canadian named Paul Saltzman travelled to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh to “heal a recently broken heart, while seeking his own path to understanding and enlightenment”. But when he got there, he was told that it was closed because The Beatles were there. Saltzman was given shelter by an ashram employee in a hut outside the main gate. After eight days, when he was allowed in, he spent a week meditating, hanging out with The Beatles, and taking pictures with his Pentax camera.
Now, five decades after that meeting, Saltzman has made a film about the time he spent with the brilliant quartet. Called Meeting The Beatles in India, the documentary retraces Saltzman’s spiritual journey to Rishikesh and the week that he spent in the company of four of the world’s most famous musicians. In the film, Saltzman – who has, in the interim, directed several acclaimed documentaries – returns to the ashram with Mark Lewisohn, who is considered the leading authority on the British band.
The images that Saltzman shot in Rishikesh were first used for an article he wrote for a Canadian magazine in 1968 and then disappeared into cardboard boxes, Saltzman says in the film. In 2000, on the encouragement of his daughter Devyani Saltzman, the filmmaker took a fresh look at the pictures – of which close to 40 feature The Beatles. That year, he used them in a photo book. A series of exhibitions followed, including two in India in 2018.
Saltzman’s film seeks to answer a few questions about The Beatles in India, including, “What exactly did those four young musicians from Liverpool experience entering the depths of meditation, that caused such a creative outpouring?” The Beatles wrote between 30 and 48 songs during their time in Rishikesh. Saltzman’s film has anecdotes about the rehearsals for Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and the American visitor who inspired Bungalow Bill, both of which featured on The White Album released in November 1968.
Among the personalities featured in the 79-minute documentary are George Harrison’s former wife Pattie Boyd and her sister, Jennie Boyd, both of whom were in Rishikesh. The power of spiritual healing and Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation method didn’t only attract Saltzman. Among Transcendental Meditation’s most well-known believers is the filmmaker David Lynch. He too is featured in the film, and he is one of its executive producers.
The documentary can be streamed for a fee on the website www.gathr.com. Excerpts from an interview with Saltzman.
You had these rare and remarkable photographs of The Beatles at a time when they had shut themselves away from the outside world. Why didn’t you publish the photographs sooner?
When I came home to Toronto [from Rishikesh], I was still blown away by the meditation, and I wanted to tell people that there was this amazing thing called meditation. Remember, in ’68, meditation wasn’t a common thing in the West and neither was yoga. Those were all things that came out of The Beatles visit to India.
So I pitched an article to the Canadian magazine Maclean in 1968. They wanted to use the pictures and I wanted to also talk about the meditation. It was a cover story. Then I decided I didn’t want to do anything more with the pictures and put them away and literally forgot about them for 30 years.
A lot of people would have been tempted to cash in, especially with the break-up of The Beatles in 1970 and the death of John Lennon in 1980.
There’s this story called The Little Engine That Could – it’s very famous, especially over here. It’s really a story of the subconscious. What I learnt years later is that the way the sub-conscious works is that it actually takes things literally. If you say you can’t do something, you probably won’t.
So when I put the pictures away, I literally thought, I don’t want do anything more with these. That was an instruction to the sub-conscious. I married an Indian woman, and I never told her I had met The Beatles in India.
I later went to Sotheby’s in London with my daughter. I didn’t know if the pictures were worth anything. I showed them to Stephen Maycock, who is there in the film. He said, we can auction them for you. I said, who would buy them? He said, probably The Beatles because they try to buy back their brand, or a collector or a photo agency. I could keep the prints but I would have to give up complete copyright. I said, that sounds kind of boring, is there a book here?
He did say, when I asked what would they be worth, that they were 20, 20, 40,000 pounds at the time. I could have used the money but somehow my inner guidance system said there is something better to do here.
Did you meet The Beatles again after 1968?
When I was saying goodbye [in 1968] and I started to walk away, John Lennon said, will you send me some of your pictures? Jane Asher [Paul McCartney’s partner at the time], who was sitting next to John, gave me her phone number.
Six months later, I was working on the first IMAX film, and we were shooting in London. I blew up four film poster-sized prints, a portrait of each of them, and I called Jane in London. We met for for half an hour for a sweet tea at Kensington. I gave her the four pictures, but I didn’t give her my card.
Nothing happened in terms of contact until 2009. My phone rings and a woman said, is this Paul Saltzman who was in Rishikesh? She was calling from Paul McCartney’s company. He was doing a fund-raiser for the David Lynch Foundation – it was the first time he and Ringo Starr were playing together [since the break-up in 1970]. He was doing a song called Cosmically Conscious, and he wanted to use my photos as a slideshow at the back of the stage. I said, sure.
How much will that be, she said. I said, nothing, I wouldn’t have the photos without their kindness. There was silence, silence, silence – it lasted long. I said, why does that surprise you? She said, it’s never happened before. When people hear it’s Paul McCartney, they want a lot of money. I said, don’t need any money but I had one condition – a high-resolution copy of the slideshow.
I tried to meet Paul when the film was getting made, but I didn’t end up scheduling a conversation with him.
In around 2000 or 2001, I met Ringo Starr in New York. He wanted only one photo, the one of him with a Nehru jacket. I said – on one condition, I want a picture with Ringo.
Did you approach the surviving members of The Beatles for the film?
In 2005, I approached Apple Records, the company that represents The Beatles, to try and make this film. The film I wanted to make was about meditation, creativity and the inner journey – it wasn’t about exploiting The Beatles.
For 12 years, I talked to Apple, but there was no response. Three years ago, I started making the film. It’s not really tied to anything.
The documentary doesn’t feature any tunes by The Beatles. Is that because it is so hard, and expensive, to negotiate song rights?
Sony ATV is the licensing agent for The Beatles music. If you want to use the music for any video or film, they will pass the request back to Apple Records to approve it because they don’t want their music used without their controlling how it’s used, which is fair enough.
I cut the film to Beatles music and tried to get Apple to license the music to me, but they said no. I showed Sony ATV an early cut of the film, but they just didn’t cooperate, for whatever reason. I had to strip all the music out and hired two composers. The movie works better without The Beatles music, it takes you to a more gentle place within yourself. Beatles music is magnificent, but it’s overpowering. So I was lucky they turned me down.