Vijay Iyer/Prashant Bhargava

radhe radheRadio Radhe: Rites Of Holi
(ECM DVD 378 3933 ECM Blu-ray 378 3934)

Prashant Bhargava’s richly atmospheric documentary footage of the Hindu festival of Holi is so visually splendid that it really needs no words, and I suppose it could have been highly effective with microphones alongside the cameras, but by handing the film over to pianist and composer Vijay Iyer to provide the musical soundtrack, the filmmaker creates something even more powerful.

The addition of separate music – which, although it sometimes uses appropriate instruments such as flute and violin, in the main avoids an ethnically “authentic” sound palette – serves to simultaneously involve the viewer in the action and yet also detach us.

A scene from Radhe Radhe

A scene from Radhe Radhe

There is the preparation, there is the waiting, there is the mounting tension, there is the growing excitement, building to euphoria and transcendence before tipping over into chaos. There is ultimately the subsequent climax, release, exhaustion and “hangover”. The film manages this arching narrative with great subtlety, interspersing the street scenes with staged ones of the actress Anna George as Radha, mortal lover of the god Krishna, and the music follows its tension and release,  climaxes and way stations.

I wasn’t sure about the dramatised Anna George scenes on first viewing, and I’m still not wholly convinced they are necessary. Strangely, because they are meticulously tasteful, they feel more kitsch than the often over-the-top decorations of the actual celebrants which of course are absolutely authentic. I suppose they do provide an amplification of the narrative and explain the purpose of the rites more fully.

I have no such qualms about the music, though. Iyer has written a dramatic, both risky and serene, completely captivating soundtrack for his piano and the International Contemporary Ensemble which can easily work on its own, though to hear it without the images would be to get only half the intoxicating, sensual experience.

Here is a clip:

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