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Ajoy Bose’s documentary is a tender exploration of band’s time in the country

What drew me in was Ajoy Bose’s exploration of the cultural encounter between East and West – neither a clash, nor a picture of harmony, but fun, messy and real

Did you know that George Harrison, lead guitarist of The Beatles, was introduced to the sitar much before Pandit Ravi Shankar came into his life? The guitarist’s mother, Louise, used to listen to the sitar on her radio when she was pregnant. The sounds of the strings helped her calm down. No wonder then that Harrison was fascinated by the instrument when he encountered it in his adult life. He had not seen it before but it seemed intimately familiar.

This is one of many delightful anecdotes that emerged when author-filmmaker Ajoy Bose was in conversation with cricket commentator Gautam Bhimani at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata in the last week of March 2022. The event was part of the Kolkata Literary Meet, which also hosted the India premiere of Bose’s documentary The Beatles and India (2021) at The Bengal Club after this conversation. The film draws inspiration from a book called Across the Universe: the Beatles in India (2018) that Bose wrote not so long ago.

I had a chance to watch the film in Kolkata. Bose plans to travel with it across India, so I highly recommend getting yourself to a screening if the film shows up near you. It is certainly a treat for fans of The Beatles but it also appealed to me – a person with little exposure to the music and the colourful lives of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

Why did these four rockstars from England come to an ashram in Rishikesh in the 1960s? What drew them to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in particular? How did the guru-shishya relationship change over time? What did they gain from their stay at the ashram? How did the ashram benefit from their fame? When did the trip, both literal and metaphorical, begin to go downhill? Armed with his experience as a journalist, Bose pursues each question rigorously.

He seems completely at home with his research material. This might come as a surprise to those who know that Bose’s previous work does not have much to do with music or spirituality. He has written a book on the Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1975 to 1977, and a biography of the social reformer and politician Mayawati.

That said, Bose’s penchant for politics does sneak into The Beatles and India. He digs up news reports from 1968 when the ashram became notorious for its suspected links to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States of America. The film reveals that the former Soviet Union’s security agency Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) sent agent Yuri Bezmenov to ascertain whether the ashram was really a CIA camp or not. Bose has also used footage of Bezmenov talking about how the ashram, instead of supporting the USA’s interests, was destabilising American society through Transcendental Meditation.

The heaviness of these moments is tempered with light-hearted ones wherein Indian fans gush about The Beatles. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt talks about the influence of their attire on actor Shammi Kapoor. Ajit Singh, Owner of Pratap Music House, Dehradun, recalls preparations made to celebrate Harrison’s ex-wife Pattie’s birthday at the ashram. Journalist Barkha Dutt shares a photograph of her mother, journalist Prabha Dutt, sitting with the rockstars. She says, “My God, I wish I had been that person sitting between John and Paul.”

In addition to these people, the film features excerpts from interviews with santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, musician Susmit Bose, biographer-historian Steve Turner, actor-musician Monica Dogra, singer-composer-producer Biddu Appaiah, and Naresh Fernandes, who is the author of the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age (2012).

One of the most unusual anecdotes, however, comes from journalist Saeed Naqvi. He wanted to be the first one to get access to the Beatles, and write about their experience at the ashram. He wondered whether the Beatles were on a genuine spiritual quest or if they were just following a fad. Naqvi could find out only by becoming an insider. He entered the ashram, professing an interest in becoming a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. How did Naqvi manage to bring photographer Raghu Rai into the ashram? Watch the film to find out.

The sequence in the film that I found most moving was a brief interaction with Indra Srivastava, who is introduced as “ashram manager’s wife.” She says, “Jab Beatles aaye, tab unka poora rehne aur khaane ka intezaam hum karte the. Kachcha gobhi, tamatar, salad aisi cheezein zyaada pasand karte the. Paani ki jagah Coca Cola bohot peete the.” (When the Beatles came here, we used to take care of their stay and food. They used to like eating raw cabbage, tomato, salad. They preferred to drink a lot of Coca Cola in place of water.)

This tender recollection is special because it captures the perspective of someone who is not a celebrity. She beams with joy when she remembers how respectfully they used to greet her with a ‘Namaste’ every time they met her. According to Srivastava, the Beatles made a sincere effort to understand the cultural norms in the country that they had come to as guests. They did not have left on a happy note, but that was mostly because of their spat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who turned out to be a disappointment for most, if not all, of them.

In a nutshell, Bose has made a documentary that is thought-provoking and highly entertaining. He would not have been able to accomplish this without cultural researcher Peter Compton, who co-directed the film and sourced much of the archival footage, as well as Reynold D’Silva – head of Silva Screen Music Group – who produced the film.