The language of music

Bhavya Dore | Updated on January 15, 2018

The master at work: A still from Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds, a documentary on Zubin Mehta. Photo: Bettina Ehrhardt

From behind the musical pageantry of Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds emerges a portrait of Zubin Mehta, one of Western classical music’s best-known figures

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds, a film on the India-born conductor Zubin Mehta, screened at the Mumbai film festival MAMI last month. Its title, borrowed from a Zoroastrian phrase, aims to showcase the greatness of the talent alongside the goodness of the man. Mehta, who left Mumbai in 1954 as an 18-year-old to study music in Vienna, was quickly recognised as a prodigious talent, and had by 1961 conducted the Vienna, Berlin and Israel philharmonic orchestras.

In the film, he comes across as charming, gifted and dedicated, “a real mensch” as Bettina Ehrhardt, who made the film, says, quoting another musician. “(Mehta) told me, “you should have brought in some negative things too’,” she said. She laughed. “What could those be? I don’t know. I couldn’t find any.” Mehta speaks several languages: English, Hebrew, German and, of course, the ineffable language of music. “He is always curious and waiting to discover and communicate,” said Ehrhardt. “There is a certain ‘eros quality’ — of love — that he carries, and I wanted to bring that out.”

Ehrhardt, a German journalist and film-maker based in Munich, first met Mehta in 1998 when he was in that city as the director of the Bavarian State Opera. When she approached him with the idea for her film last year, he readily agreed. She started shooting last October when Mehta toured India with the Australian World Orchestra, a segment which the film loops back to, taking us to his childhood haunts in Mumbai.

The film closely maps some of the important touchstones in his professional career, zig-zagging across locations and time periods, and capturing his belief in the power of music, especially in defusing the tensions of politics. His zest and brio is on display throughout the film. “How does he communicate the music with such ease?” said Ehrhardt. “That is the most important thing the audience experiences with him.”

Naturally, not every major life event gets screen time (including the recent kerfuffle over a concert in Kashmir that Mehta was to conduct). “A film can never be exhaustive,” said Ehrhardt. “For me, one thing is important. Not to explain, but to show. I want to show things and leave spaces for audiences to bring their own imagination and memories.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist

Published on November 04, 2016

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