Filming Sai Baba

(This is Part 1)

I read a couple of weeks or so ago of the death in India of the guru, Sri Sathya Sai Baba – or simply Sai Baba as he was commonly known. He was, to millions around world, what Jesus Christ was and is to Christians – God, or God manifest on earth, or the Son of God, however you want to express it. His influence is global. There are Sai Baba Centres in the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia – all around the world. As a measure of his day-to-day influence in India, if he appeared in the streets of Mumbai (Bombay as it was known then), the centre of Mumbai came to a stop. Literally. And if you know Mumbai with its teeming, claustrophobic millions, its swirling, chaotic traffic mixed with cows and sometimes even elephants, you will recognize that it takes quite something to bring that to a standstill. It was eventually agreed between the Sai Baba Organization and the Mumbai police, that he would not make any further un-scheduled – or even scheduled I believe – appearances on the streets of that city.

Back in the mid-seventies, I made a film about Sai Baba. It was for American Television and it was shot in Sai Baba’s ashram in what was then a tiny, remote village in Andre Pradesh in south India, called Puttaparthi. The only reliable means of getting to Puttaparthi then was by taxi from Bangalore, about 85 miles to the south. And even then the driver would agree to take you only if he knew with reasonable certainty that the rains hadn’t washed the bridges away en route.

The shooting of that film was the occasion for some of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen, heard or been involved with. The whole experience had a profound impact on me. The effects of it are with me still and I’m sure always will be. It’s a long story and one worth telling from the beginning. I’ll post parts of it from time to time.

Let me say at the start that I’m not here to make any claims about Sai Baba’s apparent mystical powers. Nor am I here to attempt to debunk them – many have tried and all have failed. I will relate only what I saw, what I felt, the impressions that he and the experience made on me.

It began in the Spring. One afternoon, sitting in the offices of the film company for which I worked in Soho at the time,  a Production Manager friend of mine who I’ll call Ken, came bursting in – a bit the worse for the red wine in The Crown and Two Chairmen – and blurted out that in the pub he’d met a man who was working for an Indian lady who was a film producer. She was, he’d said, touting up and down Wardour Street a series of documentaries about life in India which he was convinced she’d never get off the ground and which he’d be happy to see the back of and would Ken be interested if he could convince the lady – Naseem, let’s call her – that he, Ken was the better man for the job.

Wardour Street was ever awash with hopeless hopefuls and for all we could tell, Naseem was just another. Ken however felt it might be worthwhile. And I thought, ‘Well it’s different’, and India was a country I’d always fancied visiting so we’d give it a go. We met with her. It was not as we’d expected. This lady turned out to be something else. She was an ex-Hollywood script-writer, had been born in India, educated in Switzerland and the UK, and was very – but extremely – high up in the echelons of Indian society, on nodding terms for example with the then Indian Prime Minister. She had, in her pocket, the money for six hour-long films destined for American TV. This sort of thing came one’s way but rarely, if ever. Each of the six films would be directed by a different director. We got on well together. The deal was agreed. I asked for, and was given the one whose subject was Sri Sathya Sai Baba.

Naseem and her family had been devotees of Sai Baba for many years. Naseem believed he was God incarnate, that he could perform miracles, and that he could be in more than one place at the same time. (That last may sound daft. But read physicist David Bohm, a one-time associate of Albert Einstein on the subject of objects appearing in two places at once). And I, although I had for a number of years been very interested in Eastern religious philosophy, was a thoroughgoing sceptic – here’s another, I thought, of these unprincipled Eastern mountebanks. Even so, I went into it with an open, if sceptical mind.

I met up with Naseem many times over the next four months to discuss scripts, locations, etc. and in the middle of September, in order to do the initial location recces, I flew out to Mumbai with her, with Ken and my cameraman, Toby. The rest of the crew were to follow once we’d done that initial research and after I’d finalized the scripts by scribbling away in a Mumbai hotel.

From Mumbai the initial four of us flew south to Bangalore. The bridges hadn’t been swept away, and we got a taxi which took us from there, through a most desperately poor part of India, to Puttaparthi. It was a tiny town of low buildings and dust. And at one end stood the ashram of Sai Baba. It was, by comparison with anything else around it, huge. It had been built, so we were told, by devotees of Baba, some of whom were very wealthy.

This, I thought, as we went through the ornate main gates, was some sort of terrible monument to greed and arrogance, playing on the fears of the downcast, the under-privileged, the poor. That’s how I’d categorized it – and Sai Baba with it – when we were ushered by some sort of attendant, into a tiny, cold room in what was little more than a Nissen hut somewhere in that vast ashram. There, the four of us were sat down, two either side of a plain trestle table, on tubular chairs like those you used to see in hospital waiting rooms. The attendant went out and closed the door behind him. “What,” I said to Naseem, “is going on?”

She almost whispered to me. “Swami (another of his names) is coming to meet us.”

At which point, a wave of nervousness engulfed me. What on earth was going to walk into the room? Would he walk in – or would he be carried in, preceded by trumpeters, lackies, tumblers? Or was this just a waiting room, and were we going to be scooped up in few minutes and whisked away in the the guru’s Rolls Royce to some exquisite meeting place. Most important – would I be able to hold my tongue? We all four sat and looked at each other, twiddling our thumbs, laughing nervously and without humour. We waited a long time. We were cold.

Suddenly, the latch on the door rattled, and the door opened. In came a single figure. A rather short man, dressed entirely and only in a saffron robe. His face was the black of the southern Indian and his hair was the most extraordinary full shock of jet black which stood up all around his head almost like a halo. He closed the door behind him. He looked at us and smiled, a huge welcoming smile. And he pulled up one of the tubular chairs and sat at the table directly opposite me. He looked at us all, one by one.

We were dumbstruck. By just what I have no good idea to this day. Except  that this individual carried about him and had brought with him into that room some sense, some aura, some intangible and indefinable ambience/charisma such that I’ve never in my life come across before or since. It felt to me like he brought with him all the power of the universe, that it was irresistible, it was all-encompassing and that it was good. And all that, not in a vast cathedral with pomp and organs playing, but in a little cold hut, entirely on his own and without yet once opening his mouth.

The four of us, four little people from the West, were speechless. I don’t know about the others, but I was without coherent thought. Then he looked around us, smiled and said, very cheerily and in a slightly high-pitched voice in an accent I had not heard before, “Well – would you like some talk?”

What do you say to that? When you’re in the middle of nowhere, six-thousand miles from home, in a cold, plain room at a trestle table, sitting face to face with the being millions think is God and for whom they would give their right arms – and perhaps their left as well – to be where you are – when you’re there like that and he asks you, “Would you like some talk?” – what on earth do you say?

(Part 2 is on June 12th)

About besonian

Writer, photographer, film director
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