Saturday, April 25, 2009

India - National Geographic, The Delhi Belly, & the Darjeeling Limited

Nine days ago I returned from a 15 day trip to India where I was the Director of Photography on a television pilot for National Geographic that my friend Kelly Magelky, and frequent collaborator, directed.

The show, which is currently untitled (editors note, Kelly mentioned the name 'Soundcheck' the other day and I think this would make a great show name), follows an ethnomusicologist, Jacob Edgar, as he explores the roots of traditional sounds and instruments, and their effects on modern day music, sounds, and culture. If there was anybody you'd want hosting this type of music show it'd be Jacob. For the past 10 years he has been the head of A&R for the world music record label Putumayo World Music, which is the number one seller of world music in the, well, the world. A few years ago Jacob started his own record label, Cumbancha, and for the past two years has had the number one selling world music records in the, well, again, the world. His job has been to roam around the globe, going to all corners of the earth to listen to bad music so you'll never have to.

Two of his biggest artists are Idan Raichel

and Andy Palacio

His 2007 album Watina,” an album made with the Garifuna Collective, was acclaimed as one of the best world music releases of 2007, and the London Sun mentioned it as one of one hundred you needed to own before you die with the likes of every Beatles and Zeppelin record.

Jacob knows his music, he knows his cultures, and he knows travel.

Only Kelly had met Jacob prior to embarking on our adventure, and that was while shooting a screen test with him in early February. We met up with Jacob in New York connecting flights and very quickly realized that he was not only going to be a great host, but was also like your kid brother, the kind that leaves his stuff everywhere, spills things in the car, and leaves cracker crumbs on the seat.

After traveling for 32 hours; two redeyes and one 12 hour layover we arrived in Mumbai. It should be noted that most Indians still refer to Mumbai as Bombay, the name the British gave it. In the mid to late 90's the Indian government, seeking to shed the colonial names, renamed many of the countries major cities. If you've ever ordered Chicken Madras at a restaurant, this dish would technically be now called Chicken Chennai. But for the national attempt to reclaim and Indian identity most Indians still use the English names.

The first thing you notice when you land in Mumbai is the humidity and heat. Your clothes stick to your body, even at 11 o'clock at night. We picked up some rupees and crammed into a cab for the drive to our hotel.

The second thing you notice about Mumbai is the sheer number of people everywhere, even at 11 o'clock at night. And even though it is the middle of the night, this will never change. Roughly 18 million people live in Mumbai. 9 million people live in the greater New York metropolitan area. Just under 4.3 million people live in Colorado. And of those 18 million people, roughly 9 million live in abject poverty, in slums or sleeping on the sidewalks.

One of the underwriters of the show was the luxury hotel line, The Taj Hotel Resorts and Palaces. They aren't kidding about the palaces but more to come on that later.

If you remember in November of 2008 the Taj Mahal in Mumbai was bombed with hundreds wounded and dead.

We didn't stay at this particular Taj, although we did frequent it for some shooting and some eating, instead we stayed at the Taj Land's End which is in North Mumbai right on the Indian Ocean. The only thing standing between 5 star luxury and the sea was the bombed out Sea Rock Hotel. As you well know I hold a particular affinity for buildings like this so the lack of a view didn't bother me in the least bit.

The following morning we immediately got to work shooting the first featured musician. The original idea for the show was to focus on three different musicians, Kalaish Kher, Sona Mohaparta, and Rabbi Shergill. However as shooting progressed it became apparent that we would focus instead on three areas of India, Mumbai, Delhi, and the deserts of Rajahastan and Jodhpur.

Sona would serve as our unofficial guide to Mumbai and we wrapped our first 14 hour day by shooting a rooftop acoustic performance at the Taj. Needless to say we hit the ground runnin' and gunnin'. Grip and rip isn't our favorite style of making film but it soon became obvious that our entire fifteen day trip would be a spray and pray operation, with no down time and lots of late nights.

Sona has been in the spotlight before having sung on an Indian release of INXS' song 'Afterglow', but is also a respected 'independent' artist. Although she is signed to Sony India, Sona has until this point in her career refused to be a part of the Bollywood Machine. Some argued that this has hurt her but for her, being a playback singer (where she writes, records, and sings the songs in a studio, and then an actress lipsyncs her songs in a Bollywood film), was just not in the cards and wanted to make it on her own, being an independent woman.

Since 1920 Bollywood has ruled the film and music industry in India. 99% of films made in India are Bollywood films and 100% of them are musicals. The majority of successful contemporary musicians in India are Bollywood singers, except for the classical musicians such as Ravi Shankar.

The third thing you notice in India is the lack of any traffic laws. The roads are utter chaos, literally the visual example of anarchy.

Rickshaws and Gypsy Cabs rule the roads in India. The company that owns the Taj brand, Tata, recently introduced the Nano, a car that only costs $2,000, in a bid to be able to service more owners in places like China and India. While I'm not an expert on transportation or population I feel safe in saying that the last thing the country of India needs are more vehicles on the road. It once took us 2 hours to drive 5 miles in Mumbai because of the amount of vehicles on the road and the fact that none of them were obeying any traffic laws.

Driving is a 100% free for all. Every driver uses their horn all the time, to announce themselves to other drives, to pass, to drive on the shoulder, to drive in the on-coming lanes, to do anything. And the most confusing thing is that honking is illegal. Yet there is no visible police presence enforcing any traffic laws. Rarely you see policemen, hanging out in the shade at traffic lights. And then when they pull you over you have to bribe them, instead of paying the 100 rupee fine for having your windows tinted too much as our driver had to do one day.

For context, 50 rupees equals roughly $1. Instead of paying the $2 fine, even if our driver wanted to, he had to pay 10 times that in a bribe to avoid going to prison. The amount of corruption and lack of any government presence or infrastructure was not lost upon us while in country. I'm still confused to this day as to how the most densely populated nation in the world can exist in such an archaic manner. In fact you can kill a human being while driving and pay a $1 fine, yet if you kill a goat or a cow you will be killed. Really?

The second artist we worked with was Kalaish Kher.

Kalaish is a celebrity. Everywhere we went he was recognized, after all he is a judge on Indian Idol (the Indian version of American Idol), and a hugely successful playback singer. He is also a super nice humble guy with a laugh like Gargamel.

Kalaish took us to the hills outside Mumbai for a more spiritual look at his music and his background. While he is one of the most popular and recognizable musicians in India, he has a very direct connection to the countryside and even more so to the traditional desert and gypsy sounds of Rajahastan.

Everywhere I went, with my camera rig, blue sling, safari shorts, and my green plaid shirt I attracted attention.

The hardest thing to accept was that the majority of people were just curious as to what I was doing. Most people just wanted to observe and look at the camera's screen. But it is hard to work with 50 people staring at your back. I'll never forget filming inside a mosque in Ajmer, and the man who brought his three little children over to shake my hand and introduce themselves, as if it was out of respect and acknowledgment of me being an American investing myself in being part of their time, space and culture. One the other hand I'll never forget standing in front of the same mosque being surrounded by a mob of people, with some demanding what country I was from. I said I was Canadian, hoping that my choice of Western country would serve as the most diplomatic and least offensive. It seemed to work.

Before leaving Mumbai to fly to Delhi I shaved the beard I'd been working on. It was just too hot and faced with the prospect of heading into the desert I decided it was time for it to go.

Halfway through the trip we caught a JetLite flight up to Delhi.

New Delhi, or Delhi, as the Indians still call it, is the capital of India, and right off the bat we noticed a much newer infrastructure, and a spread out city with distinct neighborhoods and more visible wealth. The original plan was to meet up with Rabbi Shergill.

Fortunately or unfortunately Rabbi turned out to be a dud. His music was just too derivative of bad Western rock and roll. But when Jacob became the first of us to get the Delhi Belly, aka the Curry Creep, aka the Calcutta Croch, Rabbi did take care of him. Most Indian musicians who aren't part of Bollywood tend to want to not be seen as Indian musicians and therefore try to emulate Western sounds and styles in an attempt to seem more 'wordly'. Unfortunately it just doesn't work and instead they just seem like watered down versions of already mediocre Western acts. Rabbi was an intruiging character however, and it became obvious right away why so many people are drawn to him. His larger than life, Lennonesque personality comes through immediately, and he is outspoken on many issues including religion and politics, two issues you almost never speak publicly about.

But in meeting him we stumbled upon two local Delhi bands, Indian Ocean, who are the Indian version of Phish (and their biggest fans, literally) and East India Company.

The people in Delhi were much more aggressive than the people in Mumbai. Kelly, Jacob and I spent a day in Old Delhi shooting some culture and food scenes. By the 10th day in we were hitting our stride.

From Delhi we left on what was supposed to be an eight hour drive into the desert of Rajahastan to a town called Jodhpur. The eight hour drive soon became 14 hours as we stopped along the way to shoot in the town of Jaipur.

This drive through rural India was the most terrifying and exciting night I've ever spent in a car in my entire life. At night Indian roads become even more of a free for all, with cars driving everywhere at full speed, regardless of oncoming traffic. The worst situation was when a bus full of people hanging out the windows, and riding on the roof split our car, on our left, going 40mph, in the dirt and bushes, while large trucks going 60mph flew by us on our right. We were later told that as Americans we should have never driven on Indian roads at night.

We arrived in Jodhpur in the middle of the night and as we opened our weary eyes we saw this:

Turns out that the Taj hotel in Jodhpur is an actual Maharaja's palace. Literally. And we met the Maharaja.

While we were in Jodhpur for only one day and two nights it was here where we all felt the most connected to our adventure and to the country. In one day we managed to shoot all over this beautiful city including from the top of the fort.

Wes Anderson shot most of his film The Darjeeling Limited in Jodhpur and so Kelly and I film geeked out while shooting the blue buildings below the fort knowing that Wes shot from the same footprint.

The last three days of our trip were again spent in Mumbai (am I allowed to say that I've been to Mumbai twice in my life?) where yours truly became the second victim of the Delhi Belly (editors note: all of those instances in this blog where you wished to see some video of what I was talking about exist. someday when I have time I'll be posting all of the video blogs. including the highlight blog of the Calcutta Crouch).

Our return home took 37 hours. It took 5 days to get over the jet lag. India is literally half way around the world from Colorado and going to bed at 8pm and getting up at 3am got old fast. I caught the Delhi Belly Part Deux back home and my girlfriend had to take care of me.

The show is coming together wonderfully right now. Kelly is working overtime to post a rough cut of the first 26 minute episode from Mumbai. The pilot will consist of 3, 26 minute episodes that National Geographic has committed to airing. Based on the performance of these 3 episodes they will decide whether or not to pick up the show. There seems to be a chance that a 60 minute special will also be created and pitched to PBS. Keep your finger crossed.

And remember, if you ever find yourself in India.

1). Don't drink the water. Don't eat uncooked food. Wash your hands, or better yet, use hand sanitizer every time you touch something.

2). Don't try to drive. Hire a driver. Catch a rickshaw or a gypsy cab. Your life will be in jeopardy if you attempt to drive. Your life is already in jeopardy.

3). There are no traffic laws. If you do chose to drive, break every rule you ever wanted to break back home. Blow through red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road when the traffic is bad on your side, etc.

4). Eat up. Indian food in Indian is amazing. Vegetarian food in India is even better. You could go your whole life being a vegetarian in India and never get tired of the endless options and dishes available.

5). Bring pens. Yes, Bic pens. Children will follow you around asking for 'one pen?'. They literally want them to do schoolwork with. Consider how cheap a couple boxes of Bic pens are to you and how much value they'll have for a little Indian child and it'll be worth it.

6). I've been writing this blog for the past 2 hours and I must retire. The sweet sounds of Whiskeytown's deluxe release of 'Strangers Almanac' has kept me company thus far. My CD player has moved on to the Bon Iver record which is my signal that it is time for bed.


kmm said...

Thanks for writing such a great blog.

Top Notch Blackman, top notch.

Michelle Parker said...

I've never read such a long blog post. Usually I read them until my eyes hurt or I lose interest. Sounds like an amazing trip. Surely better than taking over for you know who as our team manager in Norway, although that was also amazing. Thanks for the tips too!

JB Holston said...

Great post, great trip. Where in Colorado are you based?

lauren said...

Thanks for the journey, Rod... I don't typically make it through long posts, but the combination of video, music, image, and very interesting text led me right along. plus, I love India. I was in Kolkata just over a week and in Mumbai for a couple days, so it was fun to "share" the experience with you in a way... I remember stepping off the plane the first time in Mumbai... and the traffic...

Have you read or heard of Shantaram, an autobiographical novel by Gregory David Roberts? I'm reading it right now and LOVE it. You might be particularly interested because their turning it into a film with Johnny Depp and Amitabh Bachchan.

Haplo said...

Oh, weird, I got my Associates in Ethnomusicology!

I think Half-Man/Half-Beard might be my new desktop background.

Gwen said...

this is very captivating!

John Noyce said...

Just watched two of the Music Nomad India programs on Aussie cable tv - and went googling (as one does). Thanks for introducing me to Rabbi Shergil. Definately not a dud (IMHO).