Sunday, December 16, 2007
Celebrating India :“The Story of India”
Michael Wood is ecstatic about the reactions to his mammoth six-hour, six-part television series, “The Story of India”. He had been dreaming of this project for 15 years, and when it came through, all he had to do was pack his bags and co me to India and shoot for 20 months. Sounds easy! But, for Wood, it was the most daunting task to condense such a vast history into six hours, yet say it all with feeling and factual accuracy. With this series he has drawn more than his usual fans into the magical ring that only he is capable of creating. Says Wood: “It was a big responsibility. We love India so much, even six hours seemed not enough. We wanted to do much more. I can’t wait to get back to India again and do a Nataraja series.”
Wood’s film can quite simply be called an “epic”. The vast sweep of time and space that the series covers is breath-taking. One can see his special pre-occupation with Tamil Nadu as he lingers in Thanjavur, admiring the famous “Rishabantaka”-Chola bronze of Shiva, and goes on to show the entire process of bronze-casting in Swamimalai. Wood is at his best when he goes on a bus trip to the “Karthigai Deepam” in Tiruvannamalai and gets intensely involved in the excitement, jostling with thousands of devotees. He draws the viewer to discover what he has discovered in the length and breadth of India, and needless to say, he does it with such passion that no one can resist responding to his compelling story. Wood emphasises that the regional cultures of India are civilisations in themselves.
The six parts are — Origins and Identity, The Power of Ideas, the Growth of CiviliSation, Age of Gold and Iron, the Great Moguls, and Freedom. Each episode spans vast periods, and gives us a wide perspective of our history. “India became a free nation only 60 years ago, but in a real sense it has existed for thousands of years”, writes Wood in the book which accompanies the series, published by the BBC. Wood’s mammoth film and the book are undoubtedly the best celebration of India. “We got an amazing re-action, our viewership rating was 88 per cent,” exclaims Wood. His idea was to “inspire people to look for more”. His film is not the typical journalistic attack on India’s social inequities or the caste system. He deliberately sets out to share his “amazement” at so many things with his viewers. There are “brand-new discoveries” he talks about, and asks with the enthusiasm of an explorer: how many people know what Ashoka did for governance and welfare? Or for that matter what Akbar did, or where Kanishka came from? Who but Wood would tell us that Patna is such an interesting and historic place? He says that if he should write one detailed book it would be about the history of Patna. “Scratch the surface and you will find that the imperial capital of 300 B.C. is still there. Off the cuff we found a power house of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim history waiting to be explored”, comments Wood.
Keeping an eye on the current tastes of young audiences, Wood has used film clips to illustrate many a historical character. What better visual can accompany Wood’s words about the Kama Sutra than Sharukh Khan and Kareena Kapur cavorting in the midst of a water-fall! Strains of A.R. Rahman’s music can be heard in many instances, giving that essential ethnic touch to the sound-track. But the bouquet must certainly go to the Royal Philharmonic’s haunting orchestral music. It lingers in one’s ears for long.
Film-making is a team process. Wood and his team, particularly the cinematographer and his mates, leave us with awesome images from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. “Everybody responds; India is so film-savvy that even the priests in the temples suggested what we should shoot,” laughs Wood. Historians, scientists, archaeologists, writers, freedom-fighters and princes speak in the film. “The main voices are ordinary Indians from all walks of life,” says Wood, who has a knack of spurring on their enthusiasm. School boys, pilgrims, travellers in a train, holy men, housewives, all respond with such uninhibited ease, at times providing a touch of humour not lost on Wood! Throughout the series he keeps up his infectious energy, making his viewers run with him to see the next most amazing thing about India.
The visuals of the great historic sites in India, Pakistan as well as Afghanistan are splendid large canvases. The Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the life of the Buddha are contextualised in these famous locations. We see Wood talking to famous inheritors of legacies in places to which no camera crew has ever been before. The film follows the trail left by migrations, conquests and holy wars. Among the many fascinating encounters is our introduction to the Gardezi family of Multan (in southern Punjab, Pakistan), who can trace their ancestry to the very beginnings of Islam in India. They guide Wood through the beautiful monument built over the tombs of their ancestors and show him priceless illustrated manuscripts still in their possession.
Finding that the DNA of a certain community in Kerala still retains the original DNA of pre-historic migrants from Africa may astound some viewers. In search of the elixir of the gods, “soma”, Wood ends up in an Afghanistan bazaar, sipping a strange herbal tea! Leafing through old books and precious manuscripts in various libraries, he criss-crosses the sub-continent, and comes up with unforgettable nuggets of information — Serfoji’s Saraswathi Mahal library in Thanjavur is older than the Bodleian. Kalidasa was court poet to Kumara Gupta rather like Virgil was to Augustus Caesar. India welcomed Christianity long before Europe embraced it. Ayodhya’s greatest Hindu temple, dedicated to Hanuman, was paid for by a Muslim Nawab. The film is sprinkled with several amazing details that would certainly motivate young Indians everywhere to explore their own heritage.
The series is scheduled to be telecast in America in early 2008. Wood hopes it will be shown in India too, very soon. “The Story of India” as told by Michael Wood is “a tale of incredible dreams, great inventions, enormous diversity, phenomenal creativity and the very biggest ideas”. Michael Wood has paid a loving and rich tribute to “one of the world’s emerging powers” with class and style.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.