Thailand screens banned film on Lord Buddha

Bangkok: An 87-year-old epic silent film by Indian actor Himanshu Rai on Lord Buddha which was banned in Thailand has been screened for the first time here in a movie hall, with a slight modern twist given by a live 15 member orchestra.

As the 1925 black and white film, The Light of Asia, lit up the mega screen at Bangkok`s Scala theatre, one of the very few lone standing cinema halls in the city, the band sitting on either side of the screen played appropriate background music to the trumpeting of elephants, galloping horses and around the main stars, Prince Gautama, (Lord Buddha) played by dashing Himanshu Rai and his wife played by Sita Devi.

As Gautama silently wept, the violin played, helped by the koto`s murmuring melody, when he enters a contest with arch-nemesis Devadatta on horseback, tabla music came to fore. The highlights were two Indian musicians, Ustad Matloob Hussain Khan on sitar, and Vasi Ahmad Khan on the tabla. "There`s no problem (for a Muslim to play and sing) in a Buddhist film," says Vasi, who started by reciting the Gayatri Manta for the films opening shot.

"Musicians have only one religion, and that is music. This is an old religious film, and it will be a special performance," he said. Indian Envoy Anil Wadhwa told PTI that the embassy was asked to provide Indian musicians and the sitar and tabla were essential to give the background score since it was an Indian movie.

The fact that this was the first movie on Buddha and there are only two prints in the world gave it special significance, Wadhwa said adding that "close to 900 music and cinema lovers who watched the movie were impressed by the novelty of watching a silent movie with live music by international musicians."

He felt this would further promote India as a land of tangible Buddhist links with Thailand and help increase people to people contacts further. The 1925 German-Indian epic was reportedly the world`s first picture ever made on the life of Lord Buddha. The movie was banned in Thailand as it was felt that it misrepresented Buddha. It was shown 20 years ago at a small theatre but first time at a cinema hall.

The pain in Prince Gautama`s eyes seemed real enough in the silent film but every nuance of emotion was heightened by the live music, one of the movie goers said after the house full show. Music director Anant Narkkong said the "music will be a simulation of different cultures, with this great movie at the centre. We`re trying to create a dialogue, among the musicians who come together here, and among the audience, too."

The movie, a restored print, was the curtain-raiser to the International Buddhist Film Festival 2012 Bangkok, organised by Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of Lord Buddha`s enlightenment. The Light Of Asia was co-directed by German Franz Osten and Indian Himansu Rai, and the 90-minute black-and-white film recounts the story of the Indian prince who, saddened over the inevitable scourge of sickness, old age and death, renounces his wealth and sets out to seek nirvana.

"The music is live, it moves from beginning to end, meaning that we`re witnessing its birth, old age and death, along with the screening of the movie," Anant said. "Music is about listening. And before the audience hears anything, the musicians are the first to have to listen to the sound they produce and the sound their friends produce. It`s a way of focusing, which leads to the sharing of ideas, comments, and of sounds," Anant added.

The others involved in this band are Gary Hall who plays the synthesiser and also serves as the conductor; Randolf Arriola, a Singaporean guitarist specialising in ambience and "meditation music". The band also had musicians playing the koto, a Japanese string instrument, and guqin, its Chinese counterpart. Completing the sonic ingredients are the Thai saw-u, the tapping guitar, the erhu, the electric violin, a brass band, and even an iPad from which electronic clinking and thumping emerged.

"The combination of Buddhist culture and world music influence is what we`re looking for," Gary Hall, keyboardist and conductor said. To Thais live music as part of a drama is not new. In Thailand, live music was a great drama of the film-going experience during the reign of King Rama VII; not only during the screening, but a small ensemble was usually hired to play an overture at the cinema entrance to attract the crowd.