This year The Beatles: Get Back documentary caught the eye of even casual fans. Over last year’s holiday break I found myself interrupting so many people who were watching it midway through the eight-hour long doc (sometimes to interview them for Copper). Those conversations began with the inevitable, “this film is amazing! And, there’s no narration!” The documentary was evidence of how timeless the Beatles’ music and their all-too-short story remain. However, The Beatles and India, a new documentary on the band, offers a different and equally remarkable line of sight into their incredible tale, one that I didn’t see coming. Drawing inspiration from Ajoy Bose’s book Across The Universe – The Beatles in India, the documentary is produced by British/Indian music entrepreneur Reynold D’Silva, and directed by Bose (his directorial debut) and cultural researcher Pete Compton. It was awarded Best Film Audience Choice and Best Music at the 2021 UK Asian Film Festival.
The Beatles and India, now streaming on BritBox in North America, is a story about how Indian music and a few key figures and moments helped define some of the most important music the band would make. No other influence except for 1950s American rock and roll had as profound an effect on the creation and outcome of the Beatles’ music than Indian music. As the film begins, we learn that when George Harrison’s mother was pregnant during the World War ll air-to-ground bombings in Liverpool, she’d listen to Indian music to calm her nerves. This continued after she delivered George into the world, and his childhood was colored through a home where that kind of sound would often be heard. It’s an important reference point to how the band discovered the genre at all.
From here a remarkable tale unfolds. When the film ends, the Beatles’ journey of discovery no longer seems as strange as it did when I was a child. Then, when I would see photos of them dressed in traditional Indian garments, sitting on the ground, often in a moment of meditation, I’d wonder out loud: “how in the world did this happen?” Now it’s all clear, and as a fan, I’m thankful for the timeout they took to embrace this experience. In the end it would inform much of the music on one of my favorite records of theirs, the White Album.
As a band, the Beatles were first introduced to Indian music while filming their 1965 film, Help!, which included a quite controversial scene with Indian musicians in a restaurant. Many Indians took offense to how certain well-respected symbols were used both commercially and comically in the film. That would quickly change as George Harrison would soon become a lifelong impassioned devotee of Indian music. Soon after wrapping the film, he bought his first sitar, befriended and studied under sitar master Ravi Shankar, and began recording with the instrument. It what can only be called a true musical revolution, Harrison linked the worlds of pop and Indian music on the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood,” which appears on the Rubber Soul album. Adding a sitar to that track was a groundbreaking moment from which Harrison would never look back. He fully immersed the Beatles into Indian music, a raga-rock sound that would be later heard on Beatles songs “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Love You To” (Revolver) “Within You Without You” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) and “The Inner Light” (the B-side of the “Lady Madonna” single).
Fast forward to February of 1968, a time that found the Beatles searching for deeper meaning in their lives. Under the spiritual guidance of Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles took a trip to Rishikesh, India to study transcendental meditation and set out on a path of what would hopefully be deep enlightenment. This trip is where the weight of the film resides. During this spiritual sabbatical the band was joined by their respective partners, along with musicians Donovan and Mike Love, as well as actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. Through archival footage, recordings, photographs, and first-hand interviews, The Beatles and India comprehensively documents this remarkable moment in time, where specific Rishikesh experiences would inform the band’s music – and redefine the trajectory of pop culture.
To name a few examples: the song “Dear Prudence” was inspired by Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence and her apathy toward what she felt was the entire “camp experience” with famous people. She withdrew from most activities, preferring to instead stay by herself in her quarters. At breakfast one morning, Mike Love heard Paul McCartney playing around with what would become “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” and suggested including references to Russian girls, much in the way he had done with the Beach Boys with “California Girls.” The rest is history. After a wealthy mother and her adult son (the Maharishi was prone to inviting guests with deep pockets) returned to the ashram and revealed to everyone that they had just returned from a hunt where they’d killed a tiger, John Lennon wrote the song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” to chastise them for openly mocking the teachings they had just learned under the Yogi.
However, what the film touches on only lightly were the allegations of sexual improprieties against the Maharishi that inspired the song “Sexy Sadie.” John Lennon was apparently so disturbed by the allegations that he wrote the song with original lyrics that called the Yogi out by name. Those lyrics were changed, and so was the nature of the band’s relationship with the Maharishi thereafter. The film carefully presents how the Beatles managed that delicate messaging with the press, knowing that their relationship with India and its music was much deeper than their time at that retreat. Some material that the retreat inspired lived beyond the White Album and would later appear on Lennon and Harrison solo outings. While at the ashram, Lennon began writing “Jealous Guy” and Harrison birthed “Not Guilty.”
The film also captures simple fun facts about the trip and the personal situations of the band members at the time. Both McCartney and Lennon were in relationships that would soon end, and signs of demise are evident in the bored, often distracted looks of their partners. Ringo seemed to be into the trip to India because the band was. But as the living conditions worsened, his interest in heading back home heightened, and he soon left his mates behind to let them sort out their exits. His leaving readies the film for its eventual soft landing (which I won’t give away here).
Along with the film comes a soundtrack, Songs Inspired by the Film The Beatles and India, that’s truly delightful. In addition to the film’s original score is a collection of almost twenty Beatles covers by both upcoming and established Indian artists. Karsh Kales presents an energized, completely rethought take on “Back In The U.S.S.R.,” while Tejas and Mali deliver a gorgeous and majestic version of “Across the Universe.” However, for me, the most stunning contribution is the Karsh Kale/Benny Dayal collaboration on “Mother Nature’s Son.” It delivers the perfect balance between the music of the West and the rich heritage of sounds found in India.
The soundtrack is a reminder of how far-reaching the Beatles’ impact was at the time, and continues to be to this day. From seeing and listening now to the Indian rock bands that were inspired by the Beatles in the day, to hearing the new artists who continue to mine this timeless music and uncover something new, The Beatles and India is an immersion into the magic of this aspect of their music.
The ashram where the Beatles stayed is now a tourist destination, and given the attention The Beatles and India and the soundtrack album are receiving, it will no doubt see a rise in visitors. Even through the medium of film, the magical nature of the ashram comes clearly across and in some way seems to remain to this day. 54 years ago to the month, some great things happened that changed the Beatles’ and our perspective on a lot of things, the least of which just might be music.
Images courtesy of Avico.co.uk. Video courtesy of Kayos Productions, Inc.