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Documentary Review: Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds

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Cast: Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim, Nancy Kovak, Gerson Da Cunha, Yusuf Hamied, Anil Dharker

Director: Bettina Ehrhardt

This beautiful homage to Zubin Mehta should be screened across India. Produced by Germany’s ARTE, the 80 minute biopic had its international premiere  at the NCPA on the occasion of Mehta’s 80th birthday at the NCPA courtesy the German Consulate in Mumbai and Film India Worldwide. The film is produced by Renate Matuschka of Bce Films and will be telecast on Arte, the German French network in Europe.


Mehta, the Arte/Bce team and director Ehrhardt were present at the premiere and we see him in an early shot,surrounded by penguins who,you will agree, most resemble nuns and classical musicians togged up in coat-tails. It’s a lovely shot and sets the tone for what  follows: An insight into Mehta’s musical artistry ( he is among the world’s  best conductors ) and spirit. Mehta has a mind that is keen and he will not shy away from pronouncing the truth and battling the obdurate and the reactionary. He has critiqued artistic boycotts of Israel and Israeli settlements in Palestine. (And he has warned two Israeli orchestra members who objected on religious grounds to women singing that he would not tolerate such bias.)
Ehrhardt who majored in philosophy and linguistics in Hamburg captures this fearless spirit that led  him to play  Richard Wagner (as an encore) in Israel, Wagner who is effectively banned in Israel for his anti-Semitic worldview.
Explains Mehta: “Wagner is central to the history and development of European music…he is the trunk to the branches of composers who followed him…”
Mehta speaks fluent German throughout the documentary which is embellished with archival footage which shows viewers a brave, brave Jewish violinist in the orchestra fending off fellow Jews who disrupted their performance with abuse and fisticuffs. Ehrhardt (always offscreen) talked to the violinist in Israel for the doc, getting him to go down memory lane.When some Israelis told Mehta,”Indian, go home!” the Israeli Philharmonic responded by making him Conductor for Life.
It is a position he also holds in tandem with the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence/Italy which commands his domicile in the heart of the Italian Renaissance,as much as Tel Aviv. The aforementioned brave violinist  recalls how he wept when they played the Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem in Germany.
Mehta also has homes in the US and Germany (he is Conductor Laureate of the Bavarian State Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic) and of course, Bombay (now Mumbai) where he grew up. So, naturally, caught up with his erstwhile neighbors (boyhood chum Yusuf Khwaja Hamied) and school mates (Gerson da Cunha) who oddly refers to their Jesuit-run alma mater St Mary’s as an Anglo-Indian institution. Your reviewer finds it odd, because Protestant institutions are generally described as Anglo-Indian, and Roman Catholic as well, Catholic.
The film omits Mehta’s first ever performance in Mumbai at the Shanmukhananda with an American orchestra. What’s even more intriguing is the excision of Mehta’s personal life: he mentions his first wife who bore him two kids, once; his second partner, an Israeli with whom he has a son, don’t figure at all. The third Mrs Mehta, Nancy Kovack who used to be beautiful in her  Hollywood film/tv heyday, makes a revelatory remark which alludes to hostility she must have faced from the orthodox sections of the Parsi community.
But the maestro has aged well. Age has not withered him, nor custom staled his infinite variety:  he is till spry, sassy and striking. In his youth, as we can see from archival footage, he was devastatingly handsome and I don’t know if movie offers ever came his way.Filmmakers should have queued outside his door.
And I am not aware of the exact duration that director spent with Mehta and his fellow-musicians and friends, but whatever it was – a little or a lot – Ehrhardt must be commended for capturing Mehta’s  genius (he quit medicine to study music in Vienna) and modesty. We see the Chinese pianist who confesses she once forgot her entry, so wrapped up was she in watching his hands. There is Greta Bradman, granddaughter of the legendary cricketer Don Bradman, who reveals Mehta’s artistry in getting her to soar to exalted climes. And there are all the little children who are learning music at the NCPA courtesy the foundation set up in memory of his father,Mehli who founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and played with his band at the Taj Mahal Hotel because as apro Zubin summed it, “classical music didn’t pay enough to support a family.” Sadly, it still doesn’t.