For me, The Beatles’ excursion to India in the spring of 1968 has always been one of the most fascinating – and yet under-explored – chapters in the band’s story. I remember when I first began reading up on the Fabs and looked wide-eyed at photos of them bedecked in flowers sat at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, seeking spiritual enlightenment in the shadow of the Himalyas. Pretty much all of their career seemed like an impossible fiction, but that episode seemed really far out. It was all so crazily exotic; as well as showing how far they were prepared to go in pursuing their interest in Transcendental Meditation (inadvertently helping to pivot Western spiritual focus away from traditional Christian norms, for young people at least), I think I’ve always really loved the fact that it was another wild adventure for the still-united gang of four (and their partners), who – in spite of their money, fame and freedom – felt the need to do everything together. The fact that their stay in Rishikesh produced the bulk of the songs which made up the White Album later that year adds to the intrigue, as does the view held by some that the trip may have sown some seeds which ultimately led to the group’s disintegration. The wonderful home movie footage from that period was among the highlights of The Beatles Anthology series, and we were treated to even more of it during 2021’s Get Back documentary. But I’ve always wanted to know more – a gap in knowledge which was filled, to some degree, by the 2021 film The Beatles and India.
Directed by Ajoy Bose (who wrote the 2018 book Across The Universe: The Beatles in India) and Peter Compton, the film takes a look at the Fabs’ entire love affair with Indian culture and not just the Rishikesh sojourn, starting with the initial interest stirred by George’s first encounter with a sitar on the set of Help! in 1965. As the documentary received no official support or authorisation from Apple, the filmmakers were unable to make use of actual Beatles recordings or the 1968 home movie footage, but it didn’t really hamper the project at all. There’s a wealth of newsreel film, radio recordings and archive photographs on show, alongside modern-day interviews with people involved in the story as well as with Indian musicians inspired by The Beatles – reflecting the cultural cross-fertilisation the band’s interest in the country helped to ignite. British authors Mark Lewisohn and Steve Turner provide some biographical context to the tale, and there’s no shortage of Beatle interview excerpts to keep the pot boiling (we also get reminiscences from Pattie Boyd and a rare interview clip from the time with Jane Asher). And to seal the deal, there’s plenty of film showing the Maharishi’s ashram compound as it looks today, nicely woven into the footage captured during the band’s stay. It’s all pieced together in fairly traditional documentary style and, for the most part, works really well.
The story begins at the height of Beatlemania, and the band’s burgeoning musical ambition showcased with the incorporation of a sitar on ‘Norwegian Wood’, from 1965’s Rubber Soul. We hear from George about his growing love of Indian music, and so it’s no surprise that the Fabs made a point of stopping off in Delhi during their 1966 world tour. This part of the film yields some great footage and anecdotes, including how future James Bond actor Kabir Bedi (who played a memorable villain in 1983’s Octopussy) blagged his way into The Beatles’ hotel room and got to hear some of the forthcoming Revolver album. The sons of two music store owners also recount how the Fabs bought a host of Indian instruments during their visit and how, during a demonstration of a sitar, they first heard the name of Ravi Shankar. Soon afterwards, we get an eyewitness account of George’s first meeting with the sitar maestro at a dinner party in London (interestingly, Paul was also present, though he apparently felt left out of the conversation and ended up smoking a lot of cigarettes instead). George, accompanied by wife Pattie, subsequently travelled to India to study sitar with Shankar, though even here he couldn’t escape the attention of the media or obsessive fans. One woman who managed to get into his Delhi hotel suite without permission recounts his “rude” reaction on finding her there, as if he was supposed to be happy about unauthorised intruders into his personal space (he still signed an autograph for her, though).
With George leading the charge, The Beatles’ interest in all things Indian expanded considerably with the arrival of the Maharishi on the scene in the summer of 1967. Charmed by his chirpy insights into the attainment of divinity, the band followed the ‘giggling guru’ (copyright: the UK press) to a meditation retreat in Bangor, north Wales, an unlikely setting for celestial awakening if ever there was one. The shock of Brian Epstein’s unexpected death cut short their stay, but their enthusiasm for spiritual development remained undimmed and the scene was set for their extended visit to the Maharishi’s ashram the following year. It’s always puzzled me, though, that in the meantime (October 1967) Paul and George felt the need to travel to Sweden and ask their guru to stop using The Beatles’ name for his own PR purposes (there’s even a brief excerpt from a TV interview with them during this trip, which I’d never seen before, included here). The filmmakers’ attitude towards the Maharishi is also somewhat conflicted, though. Journalist Saeed Naqvi, who managed to gain access to his ashram during The Beatles’ stay by posing as a disciple, describes the content of the Yogi’s lectures as “absurd” and “arcane nonsense”, while there’s a very odd segment when a female student describes her disappointment after the Maharishi sent her to a prayer room to recite a mantra and promised a life-changing experience, which then failed to materialise. The inference, from these two testimonies, was that the whole meditation thing was a scam of some kind, yet elsewhere in the film he is treated like a revered holy man (notably the solemn still which notes his death in 2008). Perhaps it was an attempt at balance, but it comes over as very superficial.
Either way, The Beatles’ faith in the Maharishi’s teachings was clearly strong as they travelled to Rishikesh in February 1968, joined by other pop culture luminaries such as actress Mia Farrow, Beach Boy Mike Love and folk troubadour Donovan, and with the world’s media in hot pursuit. This is the real meat of the documentary, populated with glorious, high-quality footage from the time, a tour of the retreat as it looks today – run down, but still recognisable – and some terrific stories from those who were there. We get to hear from the wife of the compound’s manager, the Maharishi’s publicist and an English visitor who was present for the party thrown in honour of Pattie Boyd’s 24th birthday. There’s even an interview with the pilot of the helicopter flight over the nearby countryside when John famously managed to bag the sole seat next to the Maharishi, in the hope that, while they were alone, “he would slip me ‘the answer’”. And, of course, there is discussion of how – relaxed and free from drugs, business pressures and the relentless spotlight engendered by their extraordinary fame – new songs poured forth from John, Paul and George, usually written while basking in the sunshine atop the roofs of their apartments. You get the feeling it must’ve been a special time for them – certainly, in retrospect, it seems like their last great shared venture before everything began to unravel.
They all seemed to have a different take on the experience, though. Ringo – apparently praised by the Maharishi for being all about “feelings and heart”, whereas the other Beatles let their brains get in the way – famously left the ashram with spouse Maureen after ten days, unable to cope with the spicy food there and also missing their young children. Paul, in customary fashion, took what he needed from the meditation camp, recharged his batteries and headed home with Jane Asher after a few weeks. John and George, the most committed, eventually quit in acrimonious circumstances in April, amid rumours of less-than-sacred dalliances between their guru and young female disciples. The films delves deeply into this tale, questioning the veracity of these claims but also postulating that the two remaining Fabs may have been equally disillusioned with the Maharishi’s plans to commericially exploit his Beatles connection via a US TV special and the like. Interestingly, though, while Lennon later recanted his belief in Transcendental Meditation (and even skewered the Maharishi in song, via the White Album’s thinly-veiled ‘Sexy Sadie’), the documentary features an interview clip of him describing the Indian experiences as “the biggest trip of my life”. For his part, George deeply regretted their abrupt departure from the retreat and poor treatment of the Yogi, later apologising to him and retaining his belief in meditation, and Eastern spirituality, for the rest of his life. It’s no surprise that Harrison is the Beatle featured most prominently in the film, and he has lots of interesting stuff to say.
For all the documentary’s strengths, I wish some things had been done differently. The exploration of the White Album material they came up with during their visit, and the influence of their surroundings on the songs, is pretty scant. Likewise, there is curiously little about what actually lured them there in the first place – the meditation practices and the benefits they brought. Okay, I wouldn’t want a lengthy transcendental treatise slowing the pace down too much, but it’s pretty central to the theme of film and I didn’t really come away knowing much more about it. Also, while it’s great to see what the ashram looks like today, I still didn’t get much of a feel of it’s geography, how big it was/is, and where it was in relation to Rishikesh. The compound is open now as a tourist attraction (friends of mine visited it during a holiday in India), so maybe one day I’ll go and take a look myself. And while the directors make artful use of the archive film at their disposal, there are one or two shots of people traipsing around the Himalyas which outstay their welcome. I’d have also liked to have heard more from Mark Lewisohn about the importance of the Indian episode in The Beatles’ life cycle – he’s on record as saying the band which went to Rishikesh was very different to the one which came back – though maybe he wasn’t asked, or was saving his thoughts for a future book. My biggest bugbear, though, is a section revolving around ludicrous claims The Beatles’ visit was part of some kind of Soviet plot, designed to indoctrinate Western youth with passivity and inaction, and so help Russia gain the upper hand in the Cold War. It’s frothy nonsense and should’ve been cut to make way for more relevant content.
Overall, though, The Beatles and India is a very watchable examination of this component of the band’s career, uncovering lots of absorbng nuggets which cast new light on their story. The closing section includes contributions from Indian musicians, past and present, who discuss the influence of The Beatles on them – highlighting the dichotomy of how, while undertaking a pilgrimage to the subcontinent to find new meaning and experiences, the Fabs inadvertently inspired people there who wanted to learn from them. The enduring impact of India on The Beatles themselves is reflected with a couple of nicely-used latter-day brief interview clips, one from the 1990s with George and Ravi Shankar and another with Paul from the early 2000s, talking about how he had taken children Stella and James to see the Maharishi in the Netherlands in 1998 (which I’m thinking, interestingly, would have been soon after Linda’s death). It all makes a nice postscript, underlining – as George wrote about in ‘Within You, Without You’ – how everything is connected, and nothing ever really ends. I saw the film when it was screened by Channel 4 here in the UK last year; I think Britbox North America has also screened it, and you can pick up a DVD copy anywhere. I’m hoping the third volume of Lewisohn’s mammoth All These Years Beatles biography will eventually answer all my questions about the Rishikesh interlude and its fall-out but, as we haven’t even got volume two of that project yet, I would certainly recommend The Beatles and India to be going on with in the meantime.