New documentary film tells the story and considers the cultural implications of The Beatles’ 1968 sojourn to Rishikesh, India
Release Date: 7th January 2022
Label: Cherry Red Records
I guess that we all know the basic story. George became enraptured by the music and cultures of the Indian subcontinent, discovered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, persuaded the other Beatles to listen to what the Maharishi had to say, and off the band went to the Maharishi’s ashram in the Himalayas for a period of intense study that was also a holiday away from the fanaticism and the pressures of being Beatles. The seclusion did them good and provided the catalyst for an unparalleled outpouring of creativity – songs that, to a large extent, became the backbone of the White Album – before, one by one, the band members, with the exception of George (who kept the faith), became disillusioned and moved on to the next stage of their lives. And that’s all there was to it, wasn’t it?
Well, no, it wasn’t actually, as this fascinating new documentary film reveals. Inspired by the film’s Director, Ajoy Bose’s 2018 book, Across The Universe – The Beatles in India, the film tells the story of the events that led up to the sojourn and the adventures in and around the ashram whilst the Beatles were in residence – often via the medium of interviews with those who were present – and, perhaps of even greater historical interest, examines the lasting cultural impact that the visit had upon each of The Beatles and the impact that The Beatles’ visit had upon India and its international image. And there’s plenty to engage and fascinate even the most dedicated Beatleologist!
The movie is packed with rare archive footage and photographs, much of it certainly new to my eyes, and the viewer is left with a whole new impression of what life in the ashram will have been like. Meticulously planned photographic segues are used to contrast the appearance of dilapidated ashram now with what it was like in 1968, allowing contemporary visitors (the ashram is now a popular tourist attraction) the opportunity to home in on exactly where George, John et al spent their time during that heady 3-month period of early ’68.
Best of all are the copious interviews. Pattie Boyd’s recollections are invaluable as the ex-Mrs George Harrison recounts George’s initial infatuations with Ravi Shankar, the fateful trip to Bangor on the weekend that Brian Epstein passed away and how the Maharishi comforted The Beatles when they received the news of Brian’s passing. She’s scathing about the role that Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas played in turning John against the Maharishi, she fondly recalls the places like the Taj Mahal and Kumbh Mela that she and George visited whilst in India and it’s clear that she continues to hold the Maharishi and his philosophies in high esteem.
Informative interviews are also conducted with Mark Lewishohn, THE world authority on all things Beatles, Steve Turner – the author of a whole range of 60s music studies – and Susan Shumsky, a lifelong disciple of the Maharishi’s teachings. Interviews with The Beatles themselves are, of course, taken from archive newsreel and many of the interviews (including John & George in Bangor after hearing of Brian’s death, Paul’s admission of having taken acid and John and Paul at the Apple launch in New York when they both denounce the Maharishi) will be highly familiar to Beatle followers, but the movie places these in the appropriate context – both chronologically and conceptually – to add extra gravitas to their words.
But perhaps the most informative of the interviews are those conducted with the local people who encountered The Beatles during their visit – either in the ashram or elsewhere. Journalists, musical instrument vendors, caterers, musicians, even the proprietress of the ashram all have their stories, including how the behaviour of The Beatles changed during their visit to reflect Indian cultural expectations, how Ringo couldn’t cope with the local diet and packed his luggage with tins of Heinz baked beans, how The Beatles incorporated Indian mantras into even the most commercial aspects of their writing (Hello, Goodbye, anyone?), how they influenced youth culture and music in India both before and after their visit and some heartening declarations from a number of young Indian musicians that express their pride in the extent that India reached out to the world via The Beatles. There’s a hilarious tale from the musicians hired to provide the entertainment at Pattie’s birthday celebration and even a chilling recollection of how the events in the ashram were monitored by the CIA and the KGB, both of whom had different ambitions for the preservation or decay of western society.
Other movie highlights include footage of George taking sitar tuition from Ravi Shankar, stories of how songs like Back In The USSR, Dear Prudence, The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill and, of course, Sexy Sadie (initially John’s swipe at the Maharishi until he was persuaded to change the words) came into being and footage of Ravi Shankar duetting with Yehudi Menuhin that is, quite simply, breathtaking. There’s even a clip that shows Mia Farrow (a fellow student of the Maharishi) drinking water from the River Ganges – not something that today’s tourist guides would advise, I don’t suppose! And John and Cynthia both look amazingly content, making it almost impossible to realise that their marriage was soon about to smash into the most unyielding of brick walls…
It all ended in tears, of course. Ringo and his (then) wife Maureen left the ashram after only ten days, claiming that they were missing their young children. Indeed, Maureen looks highly uncomfortable in the few photographs in which she features. Paul and his girlfriend Jane Asher lasted five weeks and returned to the UK to fulfill Jane’s theatrical commitments and John, George and their respective partners lasted until late April when John had his head turned by allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of the Maharishi by Magic Alex.
However, despite the initial reactions (“The Maharishi was a mistake,” said John) each of The Beatles were to later speak well of their Guru – “He’s a spry old codger,” said Paul. George never lost faith and, once he’d learned of Alex’s role in turning John away, took the trouble to visit the Maharishi and apologise for the method of their departure. The Maharishi died in 2008 at the age of 90.
I’ll tell you this, for a basketful of bagpipes, there was a lot more to The Beatles’ Indian adventure than you’d ever have realised!
The Beatles and India is a truly fascinating documentary that will appeal to anyone with an interest in how The Beatles spent their time. I do admit that I was half expecting a dry, monotonous sequence of grainy archive film clips that I’d seen many times before, but Director Ajoy Bose has done a wonderful job in bringing the story of The Beatles’ trip to vibrant life. The documentary content is tastefully and entertainingly enhanced by scenes of Indian street-life and there are even a few Bollywood clips to add colour and interest. It’s a great film, and I loved it! If you find that you enjoy The Beatles and India as much as I did, you may wish to look out for the accompanying album, Songs Inspired by the Film – The Beatles and India, released on 29th October 2021. It’s a 2CD set that features – on disc one – covers of Beatle songs, many written in the ashram during the Indian sojourn, by a diverse cast of Indian artists, all of whom reflect their own distinctive musical styles and influences. The second disc of the set features the hypnotic soundtrack to the film, written by award-winning composer Benji Merrison.
Listen to the version of The Beatles’ Dear Prudence, recorded by Karsh Kale and Monica Dogra for the film’s accompanying album Songs Inspired by the Film – The Beatles and India here: