Monday, 17 May 2010


Going to Uttrakashi was one of those moments where we threw our itinerary in the bin, and took a leap of faith.

The Kumbha Mela has similarities with a political rally. Posters advertise the many gurus that are in attendance, and these guys have stalls where people can come and meet them, hear them speak, get an idea of their teachings. I could be wrong, but I think ultimately their goal is to recruit followers.

We were filming at the stall of a guru called Pilot Baba, and while there I took a soundbite from an Australian female monk called Sunny. It transpired that Sunny was a former top model, who turned away from her highflying life when she discovered God.

We left after interviewing Pilot Baba, and I thought that was it. But after digesting the Kumbha Mela a little bit, and discussing things with my guru (Raj), I decided that there was a story worth pursuing.

So we embarked on a 24 hour journey to beautiful Uttrakashi, where Pilot Baba's ashram is.

The accommodation was basic... very basic! If you were coming for a spiritual pampering, this was not the place for it. The buildings were old, and the paint was peeling. Most of the surfaces were black with flies. There were stacks of rotting potatoes everywhere (a big help to the fly situation) and the food that we got twice a day was curry with... potatoes. This was occasionally peppered with gourmet pebbles.

All this said, the location made up for it. From our room we could see the Himalayas, the forest, and the roaring Ganga. A million dollar view.

The iconography on the walls, and the dilapidated environment didn't sit well with me. But over the course of the week I started to understand what was going on here.

The accommodation was a step towards asceticism: the renunciation of the material world. I met a Russian man in his late thirties, who lived in a tin hut on the banks of the Ganga. He built it himself, and had a bedroom, a living room/kitchen, and a garden (a patch of ground where he grew vegetables). He didn't want to be filmed, but I spent two evenings with him, drinking chai and talking about life and spirituality.

It's clear that some people operate on a different level to the average person who works 9 to 5, and wants a family and a house. They feel a connection to God that made them want to devote their lives to their spiritual journey. This guy, Sunny, and some other disciples I spoke to (who were mainly from Russia and the Ukraine), believe that the best way to do this is with the guidance of a guru (teacher). The guru is a bridge to the divine.

According to Sunny, this is the most intimate relationship two people can cultivate, because the guru enters your mind and teaches you telepathically. It requires complete surrender, and complete trust.

Over the course of several days, Sunny showed us around the ashram, and explained Pilot Baba's philosophy and powers (his 'power' is his ability to submerge himself under water or ice for days, and then resurface, alive). We took a trip to one of the most spiritual places in India - Gangotri: the source of the river Ganga. Sunny told us about her own complicated life as a top model, and how she unexpectedly found God at the lowest ebb of her life. After some years, she came to India and found a guru. She was with him until his death, and for the last year she's been with Pilot Baba and is "spiritually in love with him".

Apparently every true guru's goal is to connect their followers with their own inner guru. But until that point, they must follow the word of the guru without question. The Pilot Baba followers I met were intelligent and articulate. They admitted that they were following blindly, and yet they weren't blind.

But I still struggle with the idea of surrendering yourself to another person as a way towards God. Followers may tell me that's my ego refusing to believe that someone else may know better. How to resolve this disparity in thought?

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Kumbha Mela and Rishikesh

I've been in India for nearly three weeks now, and I've realised the futility of trying to write a daily journal. So many things happen here in any day and trying to record them becomes a burden that detracts from the experience.

So far we've had lots of highs, and very few lows. Myself, Raj and Dipesh have all been plagued by ill health (lung disease is a huge killer in India because of the dust and air pollution, and all of us got a dose of bronchitis), but other than that Rishikesh treated us well. It took about 10 days to get into the swing of filming, but during the last couple of shoots I've really felt the magic happening.

We spent about seven days filming the Kumbha Mela. We interviewed some gurus, including a Brazilian called Prem Baba (a.k.a "The Love Guru"), and of course we met their followers.

As we shot this stuff my views on Gurus and their followers were in flux. Personally I can't relate to someone who wants to put all their trust in another person, but when I think about it perhaps we are all doing the same this to some extent. We wear clothes that allow us to integrate into a particular culture or subculture, we aspire towards values we've assimilated from our culture, family, and people we respect. We believe that we are individuals that think for themselves, but perhaps we're no more independent and free than these gurus disciples. At least these guys make a conscious decision to follow, and they trust and respect the people that they follow. Most of US, on the other hand, are blindly following our politicians and media without any trust or awareness.

Getting to know Tony was an interesting and rewarding experience. His philosophy is based on laughter and silliness, which is such a refreshing change from many teachers I have met. I admired his determination to live

One of the things that surprised me over the last few weeks was that my perception of Rishikesh differed dramatically from last year. Last year I didn't like it at all. The spiritual conversations wearied me, and I found the availability of spiritual practices commercial and vulgar. But this year I felt something different. Instead of my prior perception of the pretentious freak show, I now observed many diverse people connecting with each other. Through music, through words, and through breathing air that is a rich mixture of dust, smoke, and traces of the Himalayas.

On a personal note, I've spent the last three weeks sharing a double bed with Raj and Dipesh. The joys of budget film making! Actually, it's been a great laugh. The guys feel like my brothers, and every night is like a slumber party where we fall asleep giggling over inane jokes. The great thing about travelling and working with Dipesh and Raj is that we're all on the same page. We're here to do something we love, and we want to enjoy every minute of it. The guys are very positive and upbeat, and even though we don't have much physical space, we understand each other and give each other all the mental space we need. I think it's the highest testimont to a friendship when you can sit in complete silence for hours without ever having to explain yourself. This is crucial for me. I'm constructing a film in my head and I need to zone out quite a bit. I really couldn't have wished for two better people to be working and travelling with.

In addition, I was blessed to meet a very special group of people in Rishikesh, who don't feature in the documentary, but who irrevocably shaped it as I talked with them, laughed with them, and learnt from them. That's the fascinating thing about film making - the stuff that goes on behind the lens has the biggest impact on the film, and it's the stuff that's never seen, known about, or even imagined.

Our next stop is Utterkashi, where we'll be visiting the ashram of one of India's more notorious Gurus - Pilot Baba. He used to be a Pilot in the army, before he got his spiritual calling. We met one of his female monks, Sunny, at the Kumbha Mela, and she invited us to go there. Let's see what happens.

Days 1 - 5

DAY 01

Being back in India rocks. I feel like I never left. Delhi is as dusty and chaotic as I remember, but it doesn't faze me. There's a strange peace that I find in myself as I walk across a road with six rows of unstreamed, unordered motorbikes and cars beeping and driving at different speeds. What is that?

Dipesh, who approached me a few months ago and asked to be part of the crew, is a great guy. He brought us back to his home, and Raja and I experienced true Indian hospitality. His mother cooked us a delicious meal, and his friend and sister were so happy to meet us. His friend wanted to know if I liked India, and when I responded that I love it, be wanted to know why. I told him that it's mainly because of the people. Indian people are so warm, friendly, they always have a smile for you, and on average I think they are very intelligent. His friend was touched by my response. What I observe of Indian people is that they have a a very strong sense of identity and patriotism, but are unsure of how the rest of the world perceive them A compliment, a smile of appreciation, a thank you, humbles them. They are truly a beautiful people.
We're on an overnight bus to Haridwar now. The Kumbha Mela happens here. Tomorrow will be a full day of reccing, organising, and meeting interviewees. After travelling for 24 hours straight I should stop waffling and go to sleep!

DAY 02

I've only been in India for a day and a half, and already I can feel the light coming back into my eyes. India is a place you cannot fully describe to someone unless they've been here. You can speak about the colours, the noise, the smells, the dust, and even the people, but you can't describe the feeling that it carries. Maybe these blog entries may convey some of it to you.
After 40 hours of travelling, and a few more hours of filling out paperwork, we finally reached our tent at the media camp at the Kumbha Mela. I don't know why I was expecting more salubrious accommodation - this is India after all! - but we quickly realised that our cameras, laptops, and sound equipment might not be exactly safe in a room resembling a marquee at a music festival.! So we're moving tomorrow!

We saw very little of the Kumbh today because we were meeting Tony (a character in the film and my future Tai Chi teacher) in Riskikesh, which is an hours drive away from where the Kumnbha Mela takes place.

Tony is one of those people who has the gift of laughter. Within seconds we were laughing raucously, and within minutes he had captivated us with an incredible synchronicity-laden story. More on him to follow.

Dipesh, our fixer/researcher is great. He was a bit of a wild card. He contacted me a few months ago through Facebook saying he wanted to work on 'Prisms', and proceeded to overload me with contacts, information, and emails where the subject was always "HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII IT'S DIPESH FROM NEW DELHIIIII". After my initial assumption that this guy was crazy, I've realised that you can't judge a book by its cover because he's turned out to be the sweetest and most reliable person we could have hoped for. Everything looks promising!

DAY 03

The last few days have gone so quickly and so slowly and been so loaded with events that they seem like a dream. I'm reminded that "this is India". There's something about this country that makes everything seem to elongate and simultaneously be brief and fleeting.
Today I woke up at 4.30am, freezing my ass off on a wooden camp bed in a tent. Who'd have thought that it would get so cold here at night? Of course it makes perfect sense - we're at the foothills of the Himalayas - but being a dumb Westerner with little connection to nature this didn't occur to me! SO I shivered under my single sheet, and proceeded to don every article of clothing I had! At 6am we all got up, packed rapidly, and set off for Rishikesh by Tuk Tuk. Upon arrival I raced to my Tai Chi class. I enjoyed Tony's teaching, and the break we took half way through where we all sat around sharing fruit, and Tony told us one of his stories.
After Tai Chi I collected Raj and had lunch with Tony and some of the classmates. A few hours culminated in us all telling really bad jokes and laughing our asses off. Good old Tony.

Then back to Hariwar where we did a recce of the Kumbha Mela with Dipesh. Unexpectedly, the style you find at the Mela is something else. Some of these holy men and women really go all out! Is there a connection between the length of their dreds, and how spiritual they are?

DAY 04

Me and Raj needed a day to get over our jet lag, so today was one of those lovely lazy days in India where events just unfold and amaze you at every twist.

After my Tai Chi class at 8.30am, a group of us went for fruit salad and muesli with Tony. The others gradually left until it was just me and Tony left. We had a great conversation for about two hours. He's a really inspiring man, and I feel really lucky that he is teaching me Tai Chi, and also going to be a character in the film.

Tony is always raving about the "I Ching". The "I Ching" is the oldest book in the world. It originated in China, and is used as an Oracle to help make decisions in life. Tony swears by it, and a lot of the stories he tells are about incredible situations that evolved as a result of taking its advice. These stories were enough for me and Raj to consider buying it. As a joke we decided to use "The Lonely Planet" as an oracle, so I closed my eyes, flicked the book open, and put my finger down. It landed on the sentence "it is worth popping into it". We laughed at the aptness of the statement, but went to the shop.

Within seconds of walking in we were talking to a Caribbean business man who invests in the ashram where I am doing Tai Chi. Within five minutes we had been invited to his 50th birthday party where he promised to introduce me to an Indian friend of his who is high up in the Indian media industry!! Coincidence? We'll see what happens.

Day 05

India is hard on the body. Only five days here and already I'm coming down with a throat infection. Last year I was sick for three of the nine weeks that I spent here... I hope my immunity can handle this country a bit better this time!

Today me and Raj filmed a public audience of the Dalai Lama, which was quite amazing. The crowd were so tranquil, which contrasts heavily to the atmosphere at the Kumbha Mela.

Afterwards we went to Mickey's birthday party. It was a really beautiful experience, and felt like an authentic Indian experience. It was held in a temple adorned with balloons and streamers. The attendees were holy men, a few Indian people in normal clothes, and a bunch of kids. First a spiritual ritual was performed. Mickey was adorned with a marigold garland (traditional to Rishikesh), then a Holy man said prayers, and afterwards Mickey anointed everyone with red dye that is iconic to Hinduism. Then he was presented with a beautiful birthday cake (egg-free: egg is considered a non-vegetarian food in India), and after he blew out the candles the kids cheered and burst all the balloons. Me and Raj felt so privileged to honoured to have been part of something so intimate and traditional. And we never would have experienced it if we hadn't used a random book as an Oracle ;)

Speaking of which, Mickey introduced me to his friend who is a big wheel in Indian media. I'm still not entirely sure what they guy does (this is why I'm a director, not a producer!) but he seemed to genuinely love the idea for out film. He gave me his number and told me to call him when I get to Delhi. Again, we'll see what happens!