As if the release of a lavish autobiography, four-disc box set, catalog reissues and the George Harrison-produced Chants weren’t enough to keep tireless sitar master Ravi Shankar busy in the last few years, this month, on the occasion of his eighty-second birthday, he sees yet another medium documenting his life’s work as a teacher and promoter of Indian classical music: Mark Kidel’s documentary, Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds.
Inspired by the publication of Shankar’s autobiography Raga Mala — a beautifully told story, edited by Harrison — Kidel was confident he could add some spice to Shankar’s masala of a life story, but he’d yet to convince his subject of that. After a series of meetings to determine his knowledge of Indian music, Kidel clinched the job once Shankar screened a copy of the director’s 1994 BBC documentary on Boy George.
“He absolutely loved it!” says Kidel, still sounding somewhat surprised, by telephone from his home in Bristol, England. “Boy George’s story is a complicated one, he’s had a lot of suffering . . . and I suppose Ravi thought the subject was handled with tact. It wasn’t a prurient or intrusive film, yet I think it’s very revealing of Boy George.”
Kidel has a habit of handling his subjects — from Rod Stewart to Tricky — with care, and he did the same with Shankar. And though Shankar had already rather shockingly detailed his love life in print, Kidel chose not to go there in film. Instead the director focused on the maestro’s present marriage, family and work life, and stunning performance footage of ragas past and present. “It’s pretty obvious in the film that he likes women,” says Kidel. “But he didn’t really didn’t want to talk about it that much, and I don’t think it’s that important.”
Shankar and Kidel also chose not to dwell on Harrison, the sitarist’s most famous musical friend. However, there are wonderful bits of teacher and student at work on sitar, as well as an abundance of archival curiosities and evocative location shots of Shankar’s hometown Benares, India. “I tried through an intermediary to get George to agree to be interviewed,” says Kidel. “By the time he got to hear I was doing it I think he was ill, not in a state to consider it very seriously. They’re like a father and son. They talked of each other like family.”
Though Shankar’s rise to mainstream prominence in the Sixties coincided with his liaison with Harrison and his appearance at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, his career in the arts predated the psychedelic scene by decades. Born in 1920, Shankar began his professional life as a dancer in his brother Uday’s internationally acclaimed touring troupe of classical musicians. Having had a taste of the world, with all of its problems and prizes, the young Shankar dropped out of the mainstream to pursue a cloistered life of rigorous study at home in India with Baba Allauddin Khan. Through the Fifties and early Sixties, he shared stages and musical friendships with greats from every strata of music, from violinst Yehudi Menuhin and new classical composer Phillip Glass to avant-garde saxophonist John Coltrane.
For the past three decades Shankar has dedicated himself to touring and teaching, sculpting the talent of his protege on the sitar, daughter Anoushka. Meanwhile, Shankar’s other daughter, Norah Jones, made her recording debut this year as a jazz vocalist/pianist.
Among the film’s most electric sequences is a 2001 performance in which Ravi and Anoushka share the stage in San Diego and trade jams. The musicians and filmmaker will reconvene next month to shoot an additional hour-long concert in Southern California for inclusion on the DVD edition of Between Two Worlds. Outtakes from the documentary will fill out the release, which is scheduled for fall.
“One of my working rules as a portraitist is that I show the subject the film before its finished, give them a chance to persuade me to change things, though I won’t guarantee that I will,” Kidel explains. “Ravi wanted to see it three times! He was quite interventionist, and, though we didn’t do everything he asked, he was delighted with it.”
Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds will screen at the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 20th and 28th; FilmFest D.C., April 21st and 22nd; and Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, April 30th.