This is Part 7. Follows on from ‘Goodbye to Sai Baba. Or was it?’ on October 5th
So we all waved au revoir to Sai Baba and Puttaparthi, packed our bags, climbed aboard a British Airways 747 in Mumbai and headed back to this sceptred isle. Not without incident. A ten-hour flight turned into a far, far longer one and one was left wondering if Baba’s sleight of hand might still be playing tricks. Over the Persian Gulf we hit terrific head winds. Seat-belts were on most of the way. This slowed us down and gobbled aviation fuel so that we were forced to land in Dubai in order to take on more. Every long haul aircraft overflying the Middle East from east to west was doing the same and most seemed to have got there before us. There was a huge queue. We were on the ground for a very long time.
There was one scheduled intermediate stop – Frankfurt. We landed there just about the time we were scheduled to land at Heathrow. As we took off again, we were told that Heathrow was closed due to fog (this was mid December) and we would divert to Gatwick. Everyone started to figure out how they might re-order their pick-up arrangements. Shortly after that we were told there was now fog at Gatwick and we would divert to Prestwick in Scotland. Everyone gave up on pick-up arrangements. As we flew over the UK’s completely fog-free south coast, Toby the cameraman who lived in Brighton, pointed out of the window to his home town as we flew over it. “That’s my house down there,” he said, as we pressed on to Scotland.
Halfway to Scotland we were told there was now fog at Prestwick and we would divert to Shannon in the west of Ireland. There was no telling now where we might end up that night. And on the ground at Shannon we encountered another traffic jam of stranded long-haul flights – those eastbound that couldn’t get into European airports and those westbound which had landed to refuel or diverted due to fog. Chaos ruled. Thousands of people milled around, not knowing what to tell friends and relatives waiting for them in airports all across the western hemisphere.
After some hours on the ground in Shannon, during which time we each managed to get one of the free Sunday lunches that were being given out, an announcement came over the PA system that Flight whatever-number-ours-was, to London was going to ‘attempt’ to land at Heathrow. It wasn’t re-assuring. We came tentatively down over London in what seemed, to those of us peering anxiously out of the windows, impenetrable fog. But the wheels hit the ground in a fairly routine way, and we were back. Getting out of the aircraft in conditions close to freezing, the UK, after three months spent in India, smelled curiously – even slightly unpleasantly – dusty.
So that was it. The Sai Baba film was shot. It was due to be shown at some point in the fairly near future on the PBS network in the United States. My next job was to edit it. It seemed however that although the shooting may be over, Baba’s affect on events surrounding it was not.
Near the beginning of our time in Puttaparthi, my Producer, Naseem had asked Baba how the film would be received by audiences and would many people see it? His reply had been typically enigmatic. He said words to the effect that whereas in its early days the film would have a very wide audience, subsequently few would see it. She had not made much sense of this, but had had to accept it at face value.
A number of people, having read my blog, have asked where they may be able to see the footage we shot. The answer is I’ve no idea. It was indeed exhibited on PBS. But thereafter it seems to have disappeared. I had one copy of it which I lent to a Sai Baba group in Surrey in the UK. I’m convinced they returned it to me. But despite searching high and low, I have not been able to lay my hands on it in fifteen years.
Toby the cameraman contacted me asking if I had a copy. He had lost his – where and in what circumstances he couldn’t figure out. It seemed an odd coincidence. I suggested we both contact Naseem who, as Producer, must have, if not a copy, then at least access to the negative from which copies could be made. It turned out that she had no copy either. She, like us, had had one. But also like us, could not make out where it had gone. Nor, it seemed, did she know where the negative was. The laboratories in London where the film had been processed and where such a thing would normally be stored, did not have it. Nor did they know where it was.
The only occasion on which, since editing the film, I have seen any of the footage we shot was on TV some years ago, in one of the many – sadly uninformed – films which have been made about Sai Baba. The BBC aired some of our footage of Baba’s helicopter jaunt. Where they got it from, I’ve no idea – perhaps the company in Soho where I edited it. But that particular sequence never made the final. I cut it out, feeling it misrepresented both him and the film’s message. So even that footage was not from the finished film.
Nor was that the end of it. During the shoot, most of us on the unit had personal stills cameras. Between us we must have taken a huge number of shots, mostly of Baba, but also of the birthday celebrations in general and the amazing jamboree which it had spawned. When we were packing up to leave the ashram, Kit the camera assistant had suggested that instead of each individual taking their films to Boots or wherever to be processed and printed when we got back to England, we give them to him. He knew the people in the laboratories – they would be only too happy to process the stills for us as well as the movie and for free. It was a common, unofficial practice among film units.
Nobody got a single print out of it. The negatives of those stills also went missing along with the negative of the film. The situation was unheard of by anyone I ever met in the film business.
The result of all this was that after the initial showing of the film on PBS in the US, neither it, nor the images taken of Baba at the time by the crew, were ever seen again. What had Baba told Naseem? – at first many will see it; after that, very few. The last news I had of the film was that at least one copy existed, and that in Puttaparthi. It was reputed that Baba himself commonly used it during instruction for his students. That may be the case. But I have never had confirmation of it.
Finally – towards the end of shooting the film, in one of her production talks with Baba, Naseem had thanked him for his generosity. No film unit prior to that time – and perhaps since – had had the same unrestricted access to himself and to his life. “Thank you,” she said, “so much for allowing us to come here to make this film.” “Ah,” came his reply, “so that’s what you think you came here for, is it?”
Make of all that what you will.
Who or what Sri Sathya Sai Baba was is beyond me to say. Millions have adored him and some have despised him. But perhaps that is inevitable. I know only what I saw and what I felt. And I know that the experience of being around him in Puttaparthi all those years ago has had a profound and beneficial effect on my life. I will write more on him soon. Even though that was indeed the end of my Sai Baba film it was not to be the last of his appearances in my life. He was to drop in twenty years later quite out of the blue.