I’m wary of documentaries that double up as glorified tourism adverts. You know, the ones that wax eloquent about a country’s natural and secular beauty, and proceed to tide over all its cracks to present a proud image in the name of patriotism. Especially if it’s an Independence Day Special.
But it’s a little different with NatGeo’s two-part series, India From Above. The coverage is more physical: It offers a bird’s-eye view of different landscapes through drone photography. In the first part, we get an aerial look at Allahabad’s Kumbh Mela (and the striking confluence of the blue Ganga and muddy Yamuna waters), Goa’s Sunburn music festival, Holi in Nandgaon, a shipyard in Veraval, a solar farm in Tamil Nadu, an ultra-marathon in Ladakh, voting in the dense Gir forest and New Delhi’s Republic Day Parade. As surreal as our vantage point is, this part could have done with more religious diversity. The second part is more “exotic” and geographical, featuring the Rann of Kutch, fishermen in Kerala, the fossil cliffs of Bhedaghat, the monsoon and root bridges of Meghalaya and the BSF patrollers of Rajasthan.
I suppose India From Above feels calming at two levels. The first is, of course, the remote perspective. This country is so dense and packed with human grit that most of us will never really experience the privilege of zooming out and observing the “pattern” of chaos. The sky is where planes fly. We move with the crowd without knowing where the crowd is heading. An empty road looks worrying, a green field looks suspicious. Blending in is our default nature, so much so that we feel creeped out by the silent vacuums of foreign lands. A ground-level existence here is both literal and figurative. Which is why a drone view of populous events like festivals and parades evokes an optical illusion of both space and confinement – the best of both worlds. Suddenly, we see the noise and hear the people. The visual technique, otherwise reserved for fictional narratives, makes an Indian viewer feel both small (a speck on the map) and big (the lens of Heaven).
Watching India from above, then, feels like a therapeutic throwback to an age that forced us to dream of outdoor sojourns and exotic places.
The second level, though, is the clincher. In the middle of a Coronavirus pandemic – which, at this moment, is most destructive in India – a documentary about our surroundings and history becomes a reminder of what we hope to survive for. I know it sounds corny, but over the last six months, it’s become easy to forget that we aren’t built to stay indoors and watch time slip away. Our desperation to break free and explore the world is proportional to the mundanity of life that triggers the need to escape. But there used to be a freedom even in that mundanity – we were at least in a position to feel disgusted by the crowds in buses and trains, the crumbling infrastructure, the incessant clamour and heavy traffic. We were in a position to fall, and therefore craved the climb.
Watching India from above, then, feels like a therapeutic throwback to an age that forced us to dream of outdoor sojourns and exotic places. Even Dev Patel’s voiceover – where his British accent suddenly localizes to pronounce Indian terms – feels like a fitting confluence of two gazes. Watching devotees reluctantly rub shoulders and pollute rivers at the Mela, or people in Nandgaon polluting the land with Holi colours, becomes strangely comforting – and a reminder that even our tendency to criticize a culture is a direct result of our desire to first discover them. And boy, have we discovered things. In many ways, this airy film is basic but timely – and damning proof of the fact that even birds need something to focus their eyes on. After all, borders mean nothing without people.