The Interview: Michael Wood
Michael Wood, the English historian, writer and documentarian, gives fresh meaning to the term "enthusiasm." Watching him on camera in such notable television series as Art of the Western World, In Search of Shakespeare and In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is a bit like watching that professor we all wish had in college — someone with smarts who's not only readily approachable but eager to share his knowledge and passion for the subject at hand.
Wood's latest series, The Story of India, may well be his masterwork. In this six part BBC series, which debuts January 5, 2009 on PBS stations around the country, he addresses the rich history of India, a place that now harbors about one fifth of the world's population. It's a daunting task, but for Wood it seems more like a labor of love. And the country’s rich colors, chaos and culture make for a film that is hypnotically watchable. For those who have traveled to India, or at least dreamed of going, it's compulsive viewing. And at a time when the troubles in Mumbai have put India on the front page, the arrival of this series is timely indeed. I caught up with Michael Wood last week.
Your physical presence within the series obviously makes it more compelling. But it's also, almost incidentally, a way to show how travel is often challenging within India. How long did you actually spend traveling within the country to make the series?
The filming was spread over a period of eighteen months, but obviously before this project I'd worked in India and traveled there over a long period of time. We took our kids there starting when they were about five. My first film there was in 1987 and the first one for PBS was in 89, so we've been thinking about it for a while!
As for the shoots, because of family, kids etc. we tried to make each one no longer than three weeks at a time and edited back home as we went along. In terms of the role of the host and film style, I see the role of the host as friendly intermediary – a bit like a travel guide I guess you might say. I've never been that keen on dramatized reconstructions because I never find them that convincing. For me its better to let the audience's imagination work in the landscape and living culture where things actually happened.
Many of our films have involved travel, sometimes epic journeys, such as In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (when we crossed from Greece through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Hindu Kush mountains on foot, or Conquistadors, when we trekked to the Lost City of the Incas at Espiritu Pampa in Peru, did the pilgrimage on foot to the Qoyllur Riti glacier near Cuzco, and went by small boat down the Amazon.
In our shows we are always trying to use the living cultures to make a connection with the past, to find the living past still touchable in the present. Which I guess is what we all try to do when we travel? Of course, it's easier to do that in India than, say, the UK – in fact it’s easier in India almost than anywhere in the world, as all human pasts are still living there from Stone Age to Silicon Valley. In that sense' it's the ultimate travel destination!!
Considering that you cover an enormous number of topics, from the Kama Sutra and the spice trade, not to mention the coming of Islam and the design of the Taj Mahal, was there any aspect of India that you wish you could have spent more time exploring?
All of them! The subcontinent (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) has about a fifth of all humanity and you would need a hundred films to do justice to its incredible riches. You only have to think there are 22 official languages in the Indian Parliament. Tamil Nadu alone — it’s not a big state, it's the size of Britain — has a literature going back to 300 BC, older than any European literature apart from Greek and Latin. So each little sequence in the films from the Kama Sutra to the Taj Mahal could have been a documentary in its own right.
But if there is one regret, especially for a US audience, I think it would have been great to have spent more on the modern end of the story, namely the Partition of British India in 1947, the birth of Pakistan and all the issues that have left such a troubled legacy in today's world. And which still today affect us all. But our remit was to take an overview of the whole of the history of the subcontinent. What you can do in such a short span is to give the audience a sense of the scope of India's history — and what an amazing story it is. Anyone who is interested to go further can take it on from there, whether at home or school. Hopefully our films can inspire people. That's one of the great things PBS does.
Did you have any notions about India that turned out to be seriously challenged by the reality you encountered?
As a regular traveler there I wouldn't say any of my notions were seriously challenged by what I saw this time. But with India you are always learning and always seeing new things.
Well as in the previous answer , no big surprises but as always with India there were still astounding things. One shock was the extent of modernization in a few years in the big cites. That has been really dramatic since India's economic opening up after 1992.
But in terms of the past, two sequences in particular spring to mind: one in India's Deep South(my own favorite part of India) in Tamil Nadu, in a village where one extended kin group all had the DNA marker of humanity's first migration out of Africa; and one in Kerala where we filmed part of an ancient 12-day ritual that contained mantras or incantations which may have been handed down from before the development of language (maybe more than fifteen or twenty thousand years ago?). And that's just the first ten minutes of episode one!!!
Given the recent terrorism in Mumbai, are there any plans to add a coda to the series before it airs in the US?
No plans. The terrorist attacks don't affect the scope and point of view of our shows. They were horrible but I think (and hope) a small event viewed in the longer term of Indian history. India has faced and come through much worse since ‘47 – and we shouldn't forget it has stayed an open society and by far the world's largest democracy. The reaction of Mumbai people said it all: just clear up and get on with life. Regarding the series in general ,we have reworked and improved (and sometimes recut) the shows for the US; but we finished before the Mumbai shootings.
Of course there are always anxieties around this in India. The sectarian issue is very deep rooted in Indian history as you would expect. The invasions of North India by Afghan Turkic and Moghul armies bearing the faith of Islam in the Middle Ages led to one of history's great clashes of civilizations. Today it's easy to forget that getting on for half of all the world's Muslims live in the subcontinent -– and the struggle for accommodation and tolerance between the communities has been a long one.
Even in the 16th century great Muslim rulers like Akbar tried to reverse the historical injustices to the Hindu population. In the freedom struggle against the British, Nehru and Gandhi saw the solution- surely rightly – as a secular democracy where all people's rights were protected. In today's India, the Muslim minority (150 million or so, the second or third largest in the world), though economically depressed in some parts of the country, are loyal to India.
None of the Mumbai terrorists was from India. And it was significant that the reaction of the Hindu majority was not against the Muslims inside India. That's hopeful. Much more worrying is the current unstable situation in Pakistan where of course the US has major influence, investment and interests. Part of India till 1947 (and the heartland of the prehistoric civilization of India ), Pakistan was envisaged by its founder Jinnah as a secular democracy with a Muslim majority on the lines of Ataturk's Turkey but it became an Islamic republic in the fifties which fell under the strong influence of fundamentalist Wahhabi and Salafist teachings at grass roots level in the late seventies and eighties under General Zia.
These developments since the seventies have ended up endangering Pakistani society as a whole and have threatened to destabilize the region. It is no accident that Osama Bin Laden and his friends have found refuge in the tribal zone in the North West Frontier region of Pakistan, where British agents over a century ago were already alarmed by the presence of a fanatical branch of Islamic ideology, which had solidified after the great rebellion against the British in 1857 which ended Muslim rule in North India. As always, we are living with history.
For travelers who've never been to India but are inspired to go after watching the series, do you have any words of practical wisdom?
After a lifetime of travel, I have to say that India for me is still the most fascinating place in the world, and anyone interested in travel hasn't lived if they haven't been there. So enjoy it; hang out, meet the people, go off the beaten track. Forget your preconceptions are much as you can. Despite recent events, most of India is very safe and a pleasure to travel in. Indians speak English, and they live in a democracy, an open society, India has wonderful hotels from five star to basic. And don't forget, India is a big friend of the US — they like and admire the US and Americans.
Practicalities: like any tropical country, eat fresh, best of all eat vegetarian, take care with the water if you are out in the wilds. Indians are incredibly polite and helpful so always ask for help — but never demand it. And the ultimate travelers' advice: always remember what Shakespeare said: Travelers must be content!
And what's next for Michael Wood?
At the moment planning some films on English history. Taking one place through the whole of our history, from the Saxons and Vikings till today, using the documents to look at the history of the ordinary people, how our freedoms developed, how the unfree peasant farmers of a thousand years ago became today's English.
Longer term, we are planning with our dear friends at PBS to do a parallel Story of China. India and China are perhaps the two greatest and enduring civilizations in history, and they are rising again as economic and cultural giants in the 21st century. We all want to know what has made them, as they will shape the world our kids and grandkids will grow up in.
For more on The Story of India, visit PBS.