This is Part 4. Follows on from ‘Return to Sai Baba’ on July 3rd
So the day dawned. The fiftieth birth-day of the man millions saw as God. The day we, the film unit, had waited for for weeks. At around 0630 that morning I looked up from my bed. Through the as-yet unglazed window in what I called – for want of a better word – my bedroom, all I could see was people. Thousands upon thousands of them, milling around talking, gesticulating, eating, shouting. Already an atmosphere of festival was about and in the air, an almost electric sense of expectancy .
Perhaps I should first elaborate on my ‘room’. The accommodation blocks in those days were brand new. So brand new that they were a long way from finished. Building had got behind schedule and when the big day arrived ours at least was still in an almost embryonic state. My bedroom was literally a brick and concrete cube – no plaster on the walls or ceiling, no fittings, and for a window, just the space left in the brickwork where one day a window would go. And I had a bed – an old fashioned, high-off-the-floor metal bed which surely was a hangover from the days of the Raj. The ‘bathroom’ next to my room – shared by two of us – was also a brick and concrete cube. This one had nothing whatever in it bar a brass tap which projected from the wall in a corner about four feet above the floor with a drain beneath it. Cold water only. This was our bath, sink, shower, hand-basin and whatever else we wanted water for. Nobody complained. Things like that – of critical importance for members of film units in normal circumstances – were trivia in these. Strange how – whatever one thought or believed about Baba, who or what he was – a certain sense had got into all of us that this film was different. None of us had worked on anything like it and in shooting it, a different set of priorities asserted themselves.
The noise of the crowds outside my room was augmented by the cries of a camel which some – I think slightly misguided – devotee had given to Baba. It was tethered close by, and if you’ve ever had to spend time with a camel you won’t have forgotten the off-putting noises they make. Mayhem was developing out there.
I got up, splashed water over myself in the ‘bathroom’ and breakfasted. Most meals we ate in the two weeks we were at the ashram consisted primarily of bananas and biscuits. The queues for hot food were gargantuan and had we waited in them we would never had got the film shot. Where the bananas and biscuits came from I really don’t know. The Production Manager produced them from somewhere on a regular basis – probably from outside in the village. But you can get fed up with bananas and biscuits if you eat them almost every meal for two weeks. And despite the food value in bananas, with just biscuits they’re still not sufficient, especially when you’re running around from half six in the morning sometimes till ten or later at night. I personally lost over seven kilos in those two weeks.
Once up and about and the unit gathered around, the first problem with this day of days was to know where to start. There existed a schedule of events. But if, when it had been written, it had related to what was planned, it had lost all relevance by that day. Nobody seemed to know what was going to happen or even what was actually happening away from the ground on which they stood. So I won’t even attempt to chronicle things as they happened. It was chaos into which somehow we just had to fit ourselves and hope that somewhere in the confusion we could shoot some usable film. One thing, in all that, was certain – Baba would appear at some point in the huge open area alongside the building in which he lived. Thousands therefore had staked their claim to every square millimetre of ground there, along with the windows, balconies and rooftops of the accommodation blocks which lined it on three sides. Those that couldn’t cram themselves into that area – about the size of a football pitch – were packed alongside each other down every path and space between the buildings of the ashram. We were able to get from one location to another only with the help of the stewards who just pushed and shoved people willy-nilly out of the way in order to carve a path through. Even so, weighed down as we were with heavy cameras, lens cases and tripods it was something of a challenge.
The day in my head as I look back is like a fairground gone mad. A whirl of colours, sounds, noise, music and an electrically charged atmosphere. But two events stand out. The first was Baba in a helicopter. Some devotee with more money perhaps than sense, had persuaded him to take a ride in a small, two-seater helicopter. Why, I have no idea – perhaps the thought appealed to the playful side of Baba. Just when this helicopter ride was to take place or which direction it would come from, if it would circle around so that all could look up, see and wonder open-mouthed, again we had no idea. The only thing we knew was that it was planned to land it, with Baba in it, in part of the area alongside his quarters.
This area, off to one side from the main area where the other thousands had gathered, was covered in sand. (To anybody that knows anything about landing helicopters, the mention of ‘sand’ sounds alarm bells). And at various points in the sand, around the proposed landing area, there were posts, wrapped around with decorative material, which had been driven into the ground. Streamers and other birthday-type coloured things were also attached to the tops of these posts.
The word suddenly went around that the helicopter, with Baba in it, was on its way. We heard the sound of its rotors. The best place to get a decent shot of it landing was going to be in a rather narrow space – given that you don’t get near one of these things as they’re landing – between these posts and a fence which had been erected around the landing area. There was very little room to move in, so it was just Toby and I who took the camera, checked in the sky to see from which direction the chopper was arriving, and stationed ourselves right up against the surrounding fence, hoping to get a close, head-on shot as it touched down.
We got the position perfect – it was clearly going to come down pointing directly at us. But as the chopper slowed on its descent and dropped down towards the landing area, Toby looked at me and I looked at him and we both thought, ‘In a couple of seconds, we’re going to get shredded with sand.’ It came to within about twenty feet of the ground and the downdraft from the rotors hit us. Things around us took off – sand, decorative birthday paper, leaves from trees. Through the sandstorm and in the dreadful racket from the engine and the swirling, winnowing blades, I could just see Baba sitting in the co-pilot’s seat looking utterly bemused. As well he might.
Toby and I had to hang onto the tripod to keep the camera steady in the blast of wind and sand. The latter was already in our eyes, teeth and clothes when there was suddenly an almighty bang, like a report from heavy gun. One of the wooden posts which I think must have been hit with a rotor blade as the chopper actually touched the ground – was suddenly ripped out of the ground, took off and shot like an airborne torpedo towards the camera. We saw it coming but it was on us before we could move. It struck the fence about two feet from my left arm with a thunderous crash which left me shaking.
It took me a second or two to realize I wasn’t hurt. Nor was Toby. Just very shaken up. And the camera, with the precious and totally unique film of Sai Baba riding in a helicopter – not a sight many have seen – was also completely intact.
The footage, when we got to see it back in London, was odd, quirky and quite bizarre. It was fascinatingly weird. Especially with that wooden missile suddenly hurtling through the flying sand towards the camera. In the event, I cut it out and left it on the cutting room floor. It didn’t work in a film which was a serious look at a man – a being – whom people worshiped and saw as God. That is not to say that a look at Baba has to be po-faced throughout its length. He certainly never was. But in the time there was available – he was but half of an hour-long film. I felt there was not time to satisfyingly integrate into the narrative, that side of his character. There would have been a danger that what otherwise disinterested people remembered most of all from the film were those bizarre, dramatic and in some ways, comic images. And that, I felt, would have been to do him, and his millions of devotees a disservice.
I did however see that footage once again, years later. One evening, Toby rang out of the blue to tell me that there was a programme on TV right now about Sai Baba. I switched on. There were the usual sorts of interviews with devotees, odd shots of Baba, one or two taken from my film – a pretty nondescript mixed bag. And then all of a sudden, there he was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of a helicopter as it landed in a sandstorm with stuff flying up all over the place and surrounded by thousands of waving and gesticulating people! How anybody had got hold of that material, I’ve no idea. (There’s a story behind that which I’ll relate in the next episode). It was bizarre, and looked like something from a modern day farce. If I’d had any doubts about whether or not I should have included that footage in the film, they were laid to rest that evening.
The second event I remember from that day is of a totally different order. It is about power. Power like I had never seen before and have not since. And from a man who said nothing. Till then.