Monday, August 15, 2016

A review of Michael Wood's “The Story of India”

I should give a disclaimer for my international readers that I am from the United States (and not from India), and that none of my ancestors are from India, either - just from European countries like Britain, the country that financed this documentary. Thus, I do not claim to be an expert on India, as I am just a layperson in North America who is an outsider to this culture. With that disclaimer in mind, I will give an opinion on Michael Wood's "The Story of India," and how it compares with some other country histories I've seen on television.

I first heard about this from a friend, when I was in college - someone who had to watch it for a class, and was not very excited about the prospect of watching it. It's ironic that I became interested in this series when the first opinion that I heard about it was so lukewarm, but it sounded like something that was very interesting to me. When I ran into some advertising for it years later, I was reminded of this earlier encounter, and decided to search for it on Netflix. To make a long story short, I enjoyed this series, and even learned something from it - which is always important to me. Although this series was shown on American PBS (and was thus easily available in the United States), this series was actually made by the BBC (a British network); and presented by the British filmmaker Michael Wood; whose enthusiasm for the topic is contagious, and helps to make the history more interesting.

The problem is that "The Story of India" is only six hours long - which is mighty short, for something trying to cover thousands of years of the history of this massive subcontinent. Neil Oliver covered Scottish history in 10 hours, Simon Schama covered broader British history in 15 hours, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation devoted a full 32 hours to Canadian history (which might set some sort of a record, for a history made for television). Next to these documentaries (which I watched later), 6 hours has often seemed somewhat short; although I will freely admit that it's better than nothing (particularly for someone like me, who's not willing to spend that much time on it). I'm just glad that there's any time at all being dedicated to it in the world of television. I haven't done any research on whether there are any Indian-made documentaries about Indian history; but I suspect that even if there are, they've probably been made in Hindi (or some other Indian language); and so it's possible this might be all there is about India in the English language - for television, that is. Thus, I won't say too much about the comparative shortness for my audience here; since it's gonna be hard to find competition from other English-language television sources.

Flag of the British Raj (or colonial rule of India)

So why was a documentary about this made in English (you might be wondering)? The answer is simpler than you might think, which is that India was a British colony - and so there are large numbers of people in India who speak English, and who have a historical connection with Britain. One would surmise that this strong connection with Britain is part of what inspired the BBC to make this series; because the history of British colonization in India is of interest to the British as well as the Indians; and so this series was made. One review I read at Amazon said that this was "India through the eyes of an outsider" (or words to that effect), which was not necessarily meant as a criticism; but merely as an observation that it gives an outside perspective, which some Indians have found useful. (At least, that's what some of them have said in their reviews - I don't know how representative this feeling is.)

Michael Wood, the presenter of this series

Like many Michael Wood programs, this documentary sometimes feels like a travelogue; since that is an aspect of the filming that Michael Wood likes to focus on. Someone described it as a "National Geographic article brought to life" (or some such similar phrase), and there is truth in this description - it helps you to experience the sights and sounds of India, as though you've been there yourself. (This includes much filming of India's poorer regions, I might add; which have not been as successful at modernizing as some of the more Westernized parts. The photographic evidence of the poverty has an eye-opening effect for First World eyes, and it shows you how lucky we are to live in such prosperity - even when the incompetence of some of our leaders undermines this, it might be added.) I would have preferred to actually focus more on the history of the country; but enough of the history gets through to make it worth watching - for the incurable history nerds, at least - and there are also a lot of interviews with English-speaking India scholars, which help to give an inside view.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is interviewed in this series

There is significant coverage as well of how the four great religions from India arose; which are Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. (It is somewhat ironic that although Buddhism arose in India, it has not been as popular in India itself, as it has been elsewhere - such as in parts of East Asia, like China and Japan - but it is still an important minority religion in India, and they actually interview the Dalai Lama himself when talking about Buddhism - introduced with text at the bottom of the screen as "His Holiness the Dalai Lama.") Hinduism is, of course, the religion with the most adherents among the people of India today, and so significant time is spent on that; but they do not neglect the other religions that are practiced by portions of India, since even a small portion of India's population is a significant number of people. (India is the most populous nation in the world after China, it must be noted; and the most populous democratic nation of them all, with some three times the population of the United States.) Of course, religion is not the only topic covered in this series - since they cover topics like the silk roads, the spice routes, and the ages of gold as well - but it is certainly one of the important ones, whose history helps to give some insight into the modern nation of India. (An important thing, when India is one of the world's rising economies, and will continue for many years to play an important role in world trade.)

The Taj Mahal, an Indo-Islamic building

But after the Hindu religion, the next most practiced religion in India is not a native Indian religion at all; but a religion imported from the Middle East, which is none other than Islam. There is an entire episode dedicated to the arrival of Islam in India (some of which smacks of Iraq-War-era political correctness), and the conflicts between the Muslims and the other Indian religions are covered extensively. It was the conflict between the Indian Muslims and their neighbors that led the British to create not one independent nation in 1947, but two - one for the Muslims (known to us as Pakistan), and one for everyone else (known to us simply as India). I should note for my readers that one other nation was formed out of the British colony of India, which is the nation of Bangladesh - another Muslim nation, which declared independence from Pakistan in its turn in 1971. This series necessarily has to cover Pakistan and Bangladesh as well; but the focus - as implied in the series' title - is India itself. The series covers the British Raj through the independence movements of Mahatma Gandhi, and even down to the present day.

Mahatma Gandhi in the 1930's

I actually thought that the coverage of the British Raj was one of the weaker portions of the documentary, since parts of this coverage smack of political correctness about the "cruelties" (real and imagined) of the British; although they show in the interviews that some Indians were on the side of the British, while others of them were not; and it wasn't quite as simple as some tellings of the story have made it out to be. I'd wager this series would be of tremendous interest to someone in the British Isles, but it is of no less interest to many here in America - many of whom have no ancestry whatsoever from anywhere in India, but who nonetheless recognize the growing importance it has on the world economic and political stage. We have reason to root for the success of India, and take interest in both its culture and its history. It is one of the largest bastions of the English language anywhere in the world today (and so is of great interest to numerous scholars of English); and it is an important part of the history of our most trusted ally, Great Britain - an ally which has stood by our side in every conflict since World War One, and which also merits the attention of those interested in world affairs (as so many countries do).

Flag of India

Whether your interests are British, Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi; you will most likely find something of interest here; and learn much about the effect that Indian culture has had on the world.

DVD on Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Michael Wood's "Conquistadors" (by the same filmmaker)

Michael Wood's "The Story of England" (BBC miniseries)

Simon Schama's "A History of Britain" (BBC miniseries)

History of the English language (British miniseries)

History of the Indo-European languages (book)

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