WMIFF: Award-winning Documentary Film Elucidates Legacy of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan

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August 30, 2012

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – Combine divine music with rich Indian culture and the corollary is ‘Play Like A Lion’, a brilliant documentary directed by Joshua Dylan Mellars on the life and legacy of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, sarod maestro extraordinaire!

August 30, 2012

By Geeta Goindi

WASHINGTON – Combine divine music with rich Indian culture and the corollary is ‘Play Like A Lion’, a brilliant documentary directed by Joshua Dylan Mellars on the life and legacy of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, sarod maestro extraordinaire!

At a screening of the documentary, ‘Play Like A Lion’, during the 2012 World Music and Independent Film Festival, are director Joshua Dylan Mellars (left) and narrator Mark Cohen

No wonder then that it bagged the award for ‘Best Documentary’ at the 2012 World Music and Independent Film Festival (WMIFF) gala, held on Saturday, August 25, 2012 at the Capital Hilton.  Now in its third year, WMIFF is an IMDB qualifying international film festival founded by June Daguiso to build a global film community and support emerging filmmakers.  Daguiso himself is a writer, producer and director for independent films and he strives to provide a platform which showcases the finest works.

‘Play Like A Lion’ is a masterpiece on celluloid!   On August 23rd evening, at a WMIFF screening in the US Navy Museum, viewers were clearly moved by what they saw!  Many people, especially in the west, may not be familiar with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, who died in 2009 at the age of 87, but through this documentary, the artiste and his art are ingrained on our minds forever!

With precision, the film elucidates his life, his gift of music, his extraordinary legacy, seen in large part through the eyes of his son, Alam Khan.  It begins with an Indian proverb, “We will know our end by our beginnings”.

Alam has dedicated his life to preserving, performing and teaching his father’s contributions to the Maihar gharana.  About his father’s music, Alam says, “the melodies, the sounds, the moods it brought out – that has never left me.  My whole life is trying to play this music, keep it alive and try to continue it … I want to play with the same love that he had in every note”.  People, like his father, he says, “came to this planet to heal and to enlighten”.

Alam Khan tuning his sarode before a Kolkata (Calcutta) concert.

By performing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1955, Ali Akbar Khan is regarded as a pioneer in introducing Indian classical music to an American audience.  In keeping with his mission to promote such music worldwide, he founded the Ali Akbar College of Music, first in Calcutta (1956), then in Berkeley, California (1967), and again in Basel, Switzerland (1985).

In the film, it is a treat to behold other maestros – Zakir Hussain, Carlos Santana, Mickey Hart and Derek Trucks – pay rich tributes to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, recognizing his immense contributions to Indian classical music.  Santana likens his music to “the sound of singing water”, so melodious and, at the same time, quintessential for the body and soul!

At a Q and A session following the screening, the director gave us valuable insights into the making of the film.  Mellars grew up in northern California where he met Mojib Aimaq, originally from Afghanistan, who became one of his best friends in high school and later, the executive producer of the film.  “There is an affinity and some history between India and Afghanistan”, Mellars noted.

Mojib’s family were patrons and connoisseurs of music in their motherland and he suggested a project on Indian classical music, specifically about Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.  “His father knew him well and he has a school in California and it just makes sense”, Mellars disclosed.  “Frankly, I thought it was a great idea.  But, how do I do that?  How do you take somebody who is so revered, how do you take music that goes back to the Vedic times in India, and then compress it into a 70-minute film.  It seemed pretty daunting”.

Opportunity knocked when they happened to film Alam, live in concert, and it struck Mellars that he would be a perfect bridge.  “The idea was to bring Indian music and culture to people who did not know much about it – people outside India, here in the United States, Europe or other places”, he told the audience.

“We needed a tour guide.  The music is so beautiful.  But, it is not a sound that people here are used to.  So, sometimes, it takes a transition phase.  We filmed the concert in 2005 and began the documentary a couple of weeks later.  We filmed and edited it over the course of five years.  It’s been about a 6-year process between conception to inception to showing it to people”, Mellars said.

‘Play Like A Lion’ is a 72-minute masterpiece of a musical genius.  The director, who was filming and editing at the same time, has managed to retain all the essential moments.  “There are a lot of wonderful moments” in the film, he told viewers.  Editing entailed “including the essential elements and making it emotionally powerful”, he said.  “I think for me, as someone who is not Indian, who had exposure to this music but that was not my musical background, it was a discovery: the story and the music”!

Play Like a Lion Director Joshua Dylan Mellars on location at the Umaid Bhawan Royal Palace in Rajasthan.

There is a beautiful sequence in the film shot in Jodhpur Palace.  Mellars recounted his experience of visiting the palace with Mojib and their good fortune in being able to capture some precious moments there.  “We went to Jodhpur because that is where Ali Akbar Khan began his career – he was a court musician to the Maharaja of Jodhpur (Hanwant Singh) at a time when India was made up of all these princely states”, he noted.  Much to their delight, they were accorded easy access just by taking the Ustad’s name.  “The doors opened; It was like ‘Open Sesame’”, Mellars said.  “They have so much love, admiration, and respect for him.  By sheer luck, we landed at a time when the Maharaja was celebrating his birthday”.  So, the visuals are stunning!

On hand, at the screening was Mark Cohen who has deftly narrated the story, enhancing its appeal and lending it an easy comprehensibility.

Cohen, a professor by profession and a busy actor in his own right, told the audience: “I saw the documentary before the track that I laid down.  So, I had an intuitive sense of the intimacy that I think runs through the piece”.  When Mellars approached him for the narration, he “had no hesitation about it at all.  It was a huge gift to be able to do it and seeing it now”, he said, with awe.  “I am myself a performer and a teacher.  Those elements of this piece resonate so loudly with me that every time I see this, it is just an honor to be included in the process in any way at all”!

Mellars admits, he “learnt a lot in the final stages of making the documentary.  It was the stage when the documentary had been completely edited, but it was missing the narration.  I knew for this particular story, the intimacy of it, I needed just the right voice, the right tone and luckily, I knew just the right man for it”, he said, looking at Cohen.  “My intuition was completely on the money.  The narration really added a lot.  Doing a documentary on a performer like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan gives you a window to see what a great performer he is, what it takes to be a great performer, the training, the life experience that goes into being able to perform”.


Courtesy: MyDosti News