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Film Review

The Beatles And India

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The Beatles
The Beatles And India
Renoir Pictures/MVD
2022

The Beatles And India is not an authorized piece of film approved for release thru the current Apple organization, but perhaps it ought to be. This feature-length documentary collects in one place the various story lines arising around the iconic British band's abiding interest in all things Indian over the years, focusing on the late '60s. More importantly, this multiple-film-festival selection adds to and clarifies the existing information available concerning all the colorful personages involved as well as the various activities undertaken during this time. Integrated with the interview footage, the voice-overs describing the visuals in process conjure a 'you are there' sensation.

Presented here so quietly but forthrightly, the sequence of events gives the lie to the somewhat negative general impression(s) that has circulated since this period in The Beatles' career. As such, there are multiple revelations on topics derived from Indian culture at large, including most crucially, the country's place in the world as more than just a colony of the British empire. Themes devoted to the influence of Indian music are largely (and rightly) relegated to George Harrison's abiding interest in the subject, not just in terms of learning to play the sitar, but also in taking upon himself the role of global advocate on behalf of Indian music:. The late Beatle spread the word not just through songs he wrote for the Beatles—"Love You To, ""The Inner Light" and "Within You Without You—but also the soundtrack he produced to the film Wonderwall (Apple, 1968).

It's worth noting in this respect that, even by their admittedly short-term collective interest, the Beatles themselves made a significant impact on the Indian nation in both music and culture. Somewhat mundane tales of less-than-idyllic experiences in Rishikesh, such as Ringo Starr's food allergies, are offset with anecdotes such as John and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi whimsically taking a helicopter flight into the Himalayas. Such intervals give a down-to-earth presence to the goings-on. Presented in a smooth interweaving of still photos and film, even the rumors surrounding the month-plus congregation gain clarity beyond, for instance, John Lennon's supportive ode to Mia Farrow's sister, "Dear Prudence."

Director Ajoy Bose and producer Reynold D'Silva are also sufficiently (and wisely) conscientious to research and preserve for posterity all four bandmates' latter-day reflections on their experiences. All are generally positive, no less so the recollections ascribed to Paul McCartney and Starr, who were seemingly least affected by the repercussions of this venture they shared with Lennon and Harrison. The presence of Beatles scholar and author Mark Lewisohn during interview segments adds credibility to this overall effort, as does, to a slightly lesser extent, voice-overs from Harrison's first wife, Patti Boyd, who was actually present some fifty years ago.

The filmmakers clearly wanted to paint a broad and nuanced picture rather than a narrow and oversimplified one. So, in terms of the famous quartet's self-professed spiritual quest, the death of their manager Brian Epstein, during the foursome's attendance at the Maharishi's seminar in Bangor, Wales in late August 1967, appears in just the proper perspective. Likewise, while the absence of any of the Beatles' music might seem an egregious omission, it's more reasonable to assume such inclusions might seem (sound) contrived, or worse, distract from due attention for the filmed content in The Beatles And India.

Revelations abound, large and small, during the course of this 90 minutes plus. Of course, there's pure trivia in the form of Ringo calling to find a string for George's sitar during the 1965 recording of "Norwegian Wood' on Rubber Soul (Parlaphone, 1965). Yet, there's also the telling fact (?) that Harrison's mother often listened to Indian music during her pregnancy; a bit of information never widely circulated about the youngest and now deceased Beatle that rightly raises the question of whether his immersion into the music was subliminal exposure prior to birth.

Appropriately too, there are multiple mentions of Ravi Shankar early and often during The Beatles And India. Positing him as more than just an ambassador for the music of his country, the filmmakers fortunately present such assignations in matter-of-fact tones bereft of contrivance or hyperbole. The polish of the writing and production, in fact, distinctly belies the garish cover art of the DVD package: this is hardly the stuff of a quick one-off, budget piece it appears to be (the mandala graphic used on the disc itself would've been preferable and similarly simple to incorporate images of the foursome).

Rightfully referencing the many compositions that would show up on The Beatles (Apple, 1968), this film's final minutes unveil a fascinating narrative concerning the stimulation of the Beatles' creative juices while on their approximately month-long getaway in India. In contrast, non-sequiturs that arise in the chronology shortly thereafter, mainly surrounding skepticism about the Maharishi and his meditation practices, seem a bit fatuous, at least on the surface. That is, at least until the recounting of certain activities at the ashram as a means to the end of the holy man's own enrichment.

More scurrilous notions are perhaps inevitable in that space between believers and non-believers (see Lennon's "Sexy Sadie"), but with virtually no editorializing on the part of Bose and D'Silva—the DVD extras are markedly slight—they allow the events to speak for themselves. It's difficult if not impossible not to complete a viewing of The Beatles And India without gaining more than a little insight about this heretofore much-misunderstood phase of the groundbreaking group's history. And it's not just the story itself, but how it's told on film, that make it worth watching more than once.

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