Meeting the Beatles in India
(Canada, 82 min.)
Dir. Paul Saltzman
Paul Saltzman grew up during a magical time, the Sixties, when the civil rights movement and the music of rock stars like The Beatles and Bob Dylan exemplified the insurrectionary attitudes of the baby boomers, who were ready to take on the world. Saltzman had already spent a summer helping to get Black voters to register in Mississippi—and getting punched out by the son of a notorious white supremacist for his troubles—before going in 1968 for the first of what would turn out to be many trips to India. There, he was introduced to transcendental meditation at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh and—wait for it!—met the Beatles, then at the peak of their fame as the most influential rock band in the world.
Meeting the Beatles in India, Saltzman’s low-key account of the time, feels purely authentic because the filmmaker still seems to be sorting out what happened during that week in Rishikesh. A gifted if amateur photographer, Saltzman took many shots of the Beatles and their wives and girlfriends as well as the other celebrities who were there: Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence (famed latterly for the song “Dear Prudence”), Mike Love of The Beach Boys and the folk-rock singer Donovan. Harrison’s wife at the time, Patti Boyd, became the object of Eric Clapton’s attention; he wrote the song “Layla” for her and eventually became her second husband. Patti and her sister Jenny, also on the trip, appear in Saltzman’s film as does his daughter Devyani, who first prompted him to find his old photos around 20 years ago. Missing from the film are Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, the living Beatles, and their music, which would have made the film more commercial. What we have instead is a reminisce of a different time, when the boomers still represented potential positive change in the world.
That Saltzman and the Beatles were in India at the same time was a complete fluke. The Beatles were at the ashram at the behest of their guitarist George Harrison, who had become profoundly influenced by the music of Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi’s meditative philosophy. Saltzman was there by happenstance: he was getting over a sudden breakup with a girlfriend and trying to find ways to cope with his life. Fortune favours the brave and, in this case, the lucky and the easy-going. While walking around the ashram one afternoon, Saltzman happened on the Beatles, their wives and assistant Mal Evans while they were eating lunch. What gave him the courage and sang froid to casually ask to join them for a chat? Whatever it was, it worked. By not treating the Beatles as celebs, he spent the week as part of their circle, taking photos, engaging in personal conversations and, memorably, spending an hour with Harrison as he improvised on the sitar.
There, it might have ended had the photos not been resurrected. They are truly amazing, some of the finest pictures ever taken of the world famous group. Relaxed at the ashram and with Saltzman, whom they liked, the photos show the unguarded faces of George, Paul, John and Ringo, happily playing music, talking and relaxing with friends and family. The formal shot of The Beatles and friends and family with the Maharishi, full on with all faces ready for their shot, is historic; a blown up image is on display at the Liverpool museum, The Beatles Story.
The photos led to the publication by Penguin-Putnam of a visual memoir, which led, in turn, to Saltzman turning the material into a limited edition high quality art book. Now, there’s the film, which is the second autobiographical doc Salzman has made, the first being The Last White Knight—Is Reconciliation Possible? (2012), which told of his re-encounters, and eventual coming to agreement with Delay de la Beckwith, the Klansman who had hit him in 1965—and whose father Byron had killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Like that film, which was really about reconciliation, this one may well be at the costs of being a celebrity. To Saltzman and, one expects, the audience, the key observation in the film is made by Harrison: “Like, we’re The Beatles, after all, aren’t we? We have all the money you could ever dream of. We have all the fame you could ever wish for. But it isn’t love. It isn’t health. It isn’t peace inside, is it?”
Meeting the Beatles in India is currently streaming via Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.