The world’s biggest rock band’s enduring love affair with India marks a momentous cultural exchange half a century ago. When the film screened at international festivals in three famous Spanish cities, many discovered this exchange for the first time.
Traveling through Spain to present a new documentary, The Beatles and India (2021), my directorial debut inspired by my book across the universe (Penguin, 2018), turned out to be a magical mystery tour. It was a fascinating experience to screen the film at international festivals in three famous Spanish cities – Valladolid, Palma de Mallorca and Barcelona – all so different from each other, highlighting the diversity of Spain. Yet audiences in all three cities have unanimously embraced the story of the Beatles’ enduring love affair with India – many of them first learning about the momentous cultural exchange half a year ago. -century between the greatest rock band in the world and this country.
I was accompanied by my producer Reynold D’Silva, a Goan who had lived in London for many decades, and my quintessentially English co-director Pete Compton, and a band — Mali, Tejas and Neil Mukherjee, Indian rock stars contemporary artists, some of several who had created an album of their own versions of Beatles songs, either composed in Rishikesh or influenced by India.
Our first stop was at one of the oldest international film festivals in the world, the iconic 65-year-old Valladolid International Film Festival, popularly known as Seminci. Surprisingly, the festival that began in this medieval city, steeped in religious tradition, to promote Catholic moral values, has become known over the last half century for the screening of daring art cinema from around the world that has chosen to deviate from the beaten track. and box office requirements. For example, several decades ago, Seminci dared to screen Stanley Kubrick’s highly controversial and widely banned film A Clockwork Orange (1971). This year, the film’s anti-hero, Malcolm McDowell, was there in Valladolid – looking older but still with a wicked glint in his eye – to open the festival for the film’s Golden Jubilee.
Pattie Boyd, wife of George Harrison when he led the Fab Four in India, added star appeal to our traveling film troupe. When I was researching my book four years ago, she gave me an interview – the first and only to an Indian in thousands of media encounters since her association with the Beatles – in which she provided insights and perspective on how her then-husband and bandmates fell in love with India. Large portions of this hour-plus taped interview would become commentary through the film, adding even more value to his contribution.
Pattie, still glamorous in the mid-seventies, created quite a stir among the media in Valladolid. Cameramen clicked as TV, radio and print reporters jostled for interviews with her, me and my co-director. There was even a photo op in the town square of Pattie and The Beatles, and the India team posed around the ubiquitous desi-cycle rickshaw, with Seminci festival director Javier Angulo , a renowned Spanish film scribe, who is also a Beatles fanatic. ; he had interviewed George Harrison shortly before his death.
The cycle rickshaw came from Casa de la India, the Indian cultural center in Spain, where it is a permanent feature. This amazing little Indian oasis in the heart of a thousand-year-old city with a church or Catholic institution on every corner is the work of Spanish poet Guillermo Rodriguez, expert of famous South Indian scholar poet AK Ramanujan. Over the past few years, Casa de la India has hosted a variety of Indian cultural events organized by Guillermo and his team, as well as his wife Monica Fuentes, a renowned Spanish Bharatnatyam dancer. Indeed, it is a model that should be reproduced throughout the world by India to export its cultural wealth.
The Beatles and India exhibition, organized by Casa de la India, gave another dimension to our remarkable stay in Valladolid. Highlighting the close friendship and bond between George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar, the cultural center has been decorated with photographs of them at various times in their long and fruitful association, as well as a recreation of the Rishikesh Ashram. The sitar maestro was an honorary member of the Casa de la India board during his lifetime and his family had provided several photographs, memorabilia and a priceless sitar played by him, all prominently displayed. Crowds flocked from morning to evening to see the exhibition. There were standing ovations during and after the screening of the film and the concert by Indian artists marked a unique and memorable week in this historic city, resting place of legendary explorer Christopher Columbus and writer Miguel Cervantes, the creator of Don Quixote.
Our next destination with the film was an even older, almost ancient city, dating back to the Roman Empire. Palma de Mallorca, on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was once a Roman province, then part of the Byzantine Empire, under Islamic rule for three centuries in medieval times after being conquered by the Moors who, to their turn, were driven out by James the First of Aragon in a Christian reconquest and subordinated to the Spanish monarchy. Today it buzzes with nightlife filled with international tourists, including the rich and famous drawn by the salubrious weather and gentle sea breezes as much as the magnificent cathedrals and ornate balconies in the narrow, winding lanes of the old Moorish quarters. .
The Evolution festival, much younger than Seminci, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2021, had the theme “Bridging Cultures-Bridging People”, which perfectly matched the central message of the Beatles and India. Watched by younger, more cosmopolitan audiences, the film and the concert that followed elicited perhaps an even more enthusiastic response than in Valladolid. Glamorous festival director Sandra Pilsky, a former actress, and the large number of students who thronged the festival site provided an interesting contrast to Seminci’s more traditional veneer, but both shared the same passion for progressive filmmaking. ready to use. and, of course, Beatlemania.
I ended my trip to Spain in the iconic cultural center and metropolis of Barcelona, Spain’s second most populous city after its capital Madrid. Presenting the film alone at the prestigious In-Edit music documentary festival, the film crew and band having dispersed, I was overwhelmed by the large number of ticket buyers for the two shows of the Beatles and the ‘India. At the inaugural show, where I presented the film, more than 600 people came and the organizers told me that the next show scheduled for the weekend was expected to attract hundreds more. I was struck by the knowledgeable and grateful audience who repeatedly applauded and responded during my introduction and the screening of the film.
As I strolled leisurely through this fascinating city in the heart of Catalonia, I was amazed at how easily modern industry coexisted with the celebration of cultural roots dating back two thousand years. Barcelona is dotted with giant corporate buildings, as well as cathedrals, museums, theaters and cinemas. Football is revered as a religion in the city and top club Futbol Club Barcelona, nicknamed Barca, is a powerful symbol of regional Catalan pride and culture. Although it is fan-run, unlike many other football clubs around the world, it generates the most revenue.
In many ways, despite the huge difference in size and population, India and Spain have many similar characteristics. Both are incredibly diverse, with several different regions having fiercely preserved local identities and a long history of conquest and occupation even though there is a religion that is the creed of a decisive majority. But there is a vital difference. Spain openly displays its cultural diversity and carefully preserves its history. After overcoming the many conflicts of the past, it has progressed to reach out to other cultures while showcasing the rich heritage of the country. India, on the other hand, is trapped in the quagmire of the past, and especially in recent years has failed to adequately preserve and celebrate its extraordinary civilization of ancient times.
(by Ajoy Bose)