An ambitious but curiously uninvolving documentary-cum-travelogue about the 2,510-kilometer long river stretching across the Indian subcontinent, Ganges (2007) is diverting but frustratingly unfocused. This BBC (Bristol) co-production with the Travel Channel (in association with France 3) is a follow-up of sorts to the BBC's Congo (2001) and Nile (2004) programs, but also comes on the heels of the widely acclaimed Planet Earth, though this isn't nearly as good. What should have been the show's saving grace - high-definition nature videography - also falls short, frequently not delivering the goods for no clear reason. It's not a bad show, but given the HD format's abilities it's definitely a disappointment.
Though not stated on the packaging, the 150-minute program is divided into three 50-minute episodes: "Daughter of the Mountains" searches for the source of the Ganges deep in the Indian Himalayas (pronounced "Hi-MA-lay-as" here, in the British manner, versus the American "Hi-ma-LAY-as") all the way to the Gangotri Glacier; "River of Life" follows the Ganges through the Indian Plain and the Terai grasslands; and "Waterland" traces the river to the Brahmaputra waterway-delta and the Sundarbans mangrove forest as it empties into the Bay of Bengal, the most-densely populated place on earth.
There are no interviews and no scientific commentary or personal observations, just narration by actress Sudha Bhuchar. Like the Ganges, the series tends to meander in all directions. Primarily it attempts to glue everything together by emphasizing the Ganges in terms of its religious significance to Hindus as a goddess with supernatural powers, and the river's symbiotic relationship with its wildlife. Predictably, there's some talk about how man's excessive demands on the river are disturbing its natural balance, but environmental concerns are a much smaller element of the program than you might expect.
Though outwardly it generates a leisurely place, the schizophrenic scripting moves it rather aimlessly between geographical study and nature show, from travelogue to religious meditation. Generally, it perpetuates cliches of Indian exoticism and mystery, exemplified by Barnaby Taylor's sitar- and vedic chant-laden music. The three shows are rife with slow-motion shots and some excellent time-lapse photography, adding to its hypnotic airs.
As such it's little more than two-and-a-half hours of pretty pictures; viewers unfamiliar with India and Bangladesh aren't likely to walk away with a newfound understanding of that part of the world. To some degree it's a matter of taste, but either a more detailed scientific examination of the river and its natural wonders or a more personal approach along the lines of the Michael Palin shows might have been preferable.
Though farmers, religious pilgrims, fishermen and the like are frequently seen, the lack of individual human stories is unfortunate. Curiously, even here Ganges is inconsistent, introducing a few scientists studying tigers nearly 10 minutes into the final episode. Earlier in the documentary there's even an awkwardly-inserted, utterly unneeded scene "recreation," though at least it's honestly identified as such. In the final analysis, Ganges is about as weighty as Cinerama South Seas Adventure though similarly entertaining.
And complaints aside the show has much that is fascinating, from domesticated otters used by fisherman to chase fish into waiting nets to nomadic Indians scrambling with their aluminum huts to keep pace with relentless erosion at the river's edge; or the extremes of nature, from the unforgiving Himalayas to the alternately parched and monsoon-drenched plains below.
Video & Audio
Ganges was filmed in 1.78:1 widescreen, a 1080i transfer on a Blu-ray 25. Exactly what was used to photograph the series isn't credited, and it's difficult to pinpoint the disappointment with the video. Where with the best Blu-ray discs I like to get pretty close to my 45-inch plasma, I found Ganges's images inconsistent and overall discovered it played much better when viewed a considerable distance from one's monitor.
Some individual shots look spectacular, especially views of the mountains, of sunsets, and an eye-popping time-lapse shot of Calcutta at night. And yet a lot of the animal footage and scenes in and around the river are underwhelming. Why is this? Partly it may be because of the limited depth-of-field necessitated shooting wildlife from extreme distances with long lenses. Normally I have a pretty good eye for such things, but with Ganges I can't tell if it was shot in high-def then somehow digitally processed to resemble film, or maybe shot in a combination of standard-def digital video and high-def, with a few film (Super-16?) inserts, all of which was then bumped up to HD. What I can say is that it doesn't compare favorably to myriad high-def nature shows and travelogues airing on high-def channels here in Japan, shows that tend to look significantly sharper than this Blu-ray disc though clearly those consist of video imagery that doesn't look like film the way this does.
The 5.1 DTS audio is fairly strong, with the musical score coming off best though there is some nice directional mixing of ambient sound. 2.0 Dolby Stereo tracks offer narration in Hindi and Bengali. Optional English subtitles are included.
Note: A curious disclaimer on the packaging states "The word 'water' has been translated to fit the circumstances of the story." I have no idea what this means, except possibly a move by the BBC to avoid offending Hindus and/or Muslims.
The supplements, all 16:9 enhanced standard definition, include a behind-the-scenes documentary (27 minutes) and a smattering of deleted scenes (20 minutes). The former, a series of vignettes demonstrating the lengths in which the nature photographers will go to get a shot, is in some ways more interesting than the documentary.
Though usually drawn to this type of programming I was mildly disappointed with Ganges. It was neither as informative nor as personal a show as I had hoped it would be, and the high-def presentation is real hit-and-miss. You'll want to Rent It first before committing to a purchase.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.