I have a hunch some viewers, especially those in the UK, are going to take umbrage when host Michael Wood intones, "Now that the West is nearing the end of its brief heyday," early in the documentary piece The Story of India. I imagine monocles dropping out of incredulous British eyes all over the island--how could Wood, a Britisher himself (and certainly one of the most affably knowledgeable guides on television) think that a mere (former) colony would ever ascend above Brittania herself? Denizens of the United States like I am may also feel at least momentarily cast aside by this offhand comment, but the fact is Wood makes an extremely cogent case that India, which existed and prospered for millennia before we late blooming Westerners entered the picture, is likely to be here long after we've shuffled off this mortal coil, culturally speaking. If you can open yourself to that perhaps unsettling thesis, The Story of India will provide you hours of simply stupendous imagery coupled with Wood's always intelligent and captivating analysis.
It's some indicative of the vast stretches of time this epic nearly six hour piece covers that halfway through it Wood has barely made it to the Common Era. What emerges from these early episodes is a fascinating, if still little understood, history of a people that emerged from the deepest mists of time and went on to radically change the world. Some of these earliest episodes contain some of the most fascinating information, if only because it's so unusual. For instance Wood shows Brahmins in training and reveals that their chant-like utterings have been shown to have no linguistic antecedents or descendants whatsoever-they are closer to birdsong than to human language. And yet they have been passed down for untold millennia and are taught by rote to new initiates. The fact that most of us "Romance" language speakers ultimately trace our linguistic heritage back to proto-Indo-European makes this precursor all the more amazing. It seems like a window on a pre-linguistic age that has incredibly been kept alive and still exists today, almost akin to walking down a city street and suddenly seeing a Cro-Magnon hulking there (no taxi driver jokes, please).
What becomes completely apparent throughout this mammoth enterprise is that India has been there, done that for so long that any relatively young whippersnapper like the Greeks, the Muslims or the British is going to have their cultural head handed to them, sooner or later. The Indians can wait, that much is clear. If the first three episodes divulge one startling fact after another about the early shrouded emergence of the people, if not the nation itself (the India we know, or think we know anyway, is a relatively recent amalgamation of what for centuries was a constantly shifting base of power and various tribe conflicts), the last half of the triumvirate brings us into relatively more familiar territory, though the insights are often just as much, if not more, interesting.
Among the many passing facts and figures Michael Wood genially uncovers is the Indians' early mastery of iron, which allowed them to build huge structures when the rest of the civilized world was basically clubbing each other with sharpened sticks. Centuries later, during the onslaught of Islam, India found itself at the crossroads of two competing religions and managed to figure out that the best course of action was reconciliation, not war. The Sufi movement stands as an elegant reminder that disparate cultures and traditions can be woven together to create a unique, new experience. And Wood quotes an eloquent ruler named Akbar who remarked on the folly of ever trying to force one religion's dominance over another. And this was virtually half a millennium ago!
You might think Britisher Wood would be an apologist for British imperialism as his piece approaches the more recent historical era, but there actually seems to be a bit of a guilt complex nagging at the edges of Wood's approach to the subject. While he does actually spend a bit of time showing the "up side" of British colonialism, with some examination of British Indiophiles who loved their adopted homeland more than their native isle, he also doesn't shirk from the sordid fact that the British invasion was the result of one thing and one thing only: the pursuit of profit.
This is documentary filmmaking on an epic scale seldom seen on television. In fact as inserts sometimes lasting only a few seconds find Wood in places as far flung as Delhi and Tanjore, one has to wonder at the logistical elements that came into play, at least during pre-production, for this gigantic undertaking to come to fruition. Impeccably well written, with Wood's elfin presence unfailingly delighted and excited to be interacting with a host of Indian scholars and everyday folk, The Story of India is at once glorious and hearbreaking. Scenes of the splendor that is the Taj Mahal are intercut with those of unspeakable poverty and slum living just a stone's throw away from the palace.
In fact for a piece that spends so much time evincing an ageless people and their land, the one thing you will notice over and over again throughout India is the absolute dearth of any modern structures anywhere. Buildings, homes, chairs, desks--everything seems ancient in this piece, as do the Indian people themselves. Even the youngest child seems somehow an "old soul."
Over 40 years ago, ABC devoted an entire evening to Africa, a well meaning, if awfully dry, look at that continent. Even longer than that effort, The Story of India maintains a surprisingly brisk and simultaneously thoughtful pace as Wood moves through time and space to explore what seems like every nook and cranny of the land, the people and the culture. The Story of India may be a novel written by an unseen hand from the darkest reaches of time, which is still being inscribed on our planet's soul to this day, but this particular documentary makes a beautiful bookmark of sorts that allows the viewer to pause for a moment, look over where the story has been, and where it has led at the dawn of the 21st century.