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  Asia-Pacific
An Indian Pilgrimage to Cannes
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
Documentaries have from time immemorial remained the poor, neglected cousins of feature films. In India and elsewhere, the documentary genre has been struggling to find funds, dedicated directors, distributors, exhibitors and, finally, audiences. I can hardly think of one theatre in India that will allot a slot for a documentary. The picture is not very different in many other countries, despite some brilliant work having been done in this field. In India, the scene has been particularly dismal, because of the kind of movies made by the Films Division and passed off as documentaries. They have been a terrible put-off, distancing the people from such work by unbridgeable miles.

It is in such an atmosphere that S. Krishnaswamy has been creating one documentary after another for over 40 years. Unlike many others of his ilk, who have either switched over to features after being disillusioned or used the documentary as a mere stepping stone to fiction movies, Krishnaswamy has remained loyal to documenting and describing the actual. His huge body of work is an amazing storehouse of knowledge on India and its neighbouring regions and their history, culture, art, religions, societies and political events.

Krishnaswamy, who first shot to incredible fame with his “Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi” in 1976, a four-hour riveting work distributed by Warner Brothers, has now made a feature length documentary, “A Different Pilgrimage”. Produced by his wife, Mohana Krishnaswamy, the film explores a virtually virgin subject: ancient India’s cultural and religious impact on South-east Asia. Having studied a history that was visualised and written by the white colonial masters, Indians have hardly known about the unique ties that once bonded them with south-east Asians. “A Different Pilgrimage” – well researched and marvellously photographed by celebrated cinematographer Madhu Ambat – fills this lacuna. The camera meanders along tens of locations in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam trying to show us the phenomenally strong links that these nations shared with India, its heritage and culture — links that went far beyond Buddhism. “We exported much more than Buddhism to these places”, Krishnaswamy avers.

“A Different Pilgrimage”, just out of the post-production lab, will be screened at the Cannes Film Festival Market. The Festival runs from May 12 to 23. At 109 minutes long, the documentary brings alive Borabudur and Prambanan in Java, Angkor Wat and Bayon in Cambodia, Phimai and Pnom Rung in Thailand, Wat Phu Champasak in Laos, Mi Son and Po Nagar in Vietnam and Baisaki in Bali, where centuries-old temples and monuments keep alive Indian tradition till this day. Daily worship has gone on there without a break. And here are a couple of fascinating facets: the “Rajaguru” to the Thai King traces his ancestry to India and the temple town of Chidambaram and recites Tamil Bhakti hymns, while the “Rajaguru” of the Cambodian monarch performs Hindu rituals in the royal court.

What is as amazing is that some of the dance forms in South-east Asian countries have been inspired by Hindu mythology. The spectacular Ramayana ballet performed by 200 Muslim artistes every evening in Indonesia comes as sheer surprise, and affirms the kind of depth and spread Indian civilization had.

Recipient of Padmashri and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the US International Film and Video Festival, Los Angeles, among other honours,
Krishnaswamy, assisted by Mohana, took four years to complete this documentary. His earlier “India 5555” was screened at the White House for President Bill Clinton as part of his familiarisation-of-India-process before his visit. And, I am sure “A Different Pilgrimage” will help us traverse on an exciting path of discovery.

(Gautaman Bhaskaran will be at the Cannes Film Festival for the 20th time)


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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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