HomeVolume 9May 2024 When a bird sings, do you analyze it?

SIDDHARTH KAK is an Indian documentary maker, television producer, and presenter, best known as the producer and presenter of Surabhi. Here, he is interviewed by PURNIMA RAMAKRISHNAN  about being stoic, and he shares two unique stories on how culture and language can transcend borders, time, and unexpected circumstances. 


Q: Thank you so much for joining us. My first question to you is what distinguishes documentary filmmaking from regular filmmaking in capturing the essence of a story? 

SK: The idea of a documentary is to communicate. Depending on whom you communicate with, your documentary changes. A documentary is a teaching medium. When you make any film for the masses, you have to make sure you retain their interest. What is in it for them? Why are they watching it? They’re not there to learn; they’re there to enjoy, to be entertained. 

Really speaking, the principle of documentary filmmaking is to capture the audience’s attention, and one of the simplest ways is to make sure it is understood. Can an eight-year-old child understand what you’re saying? If she can, then your documentary is good; it will communicate to a large number of people. This is true even for specialized documentaries, which only committed people will listen to. You may not feel it’s important to reach others, but your documentary can bring them into the fold. Even if you’re dealing with very complicated subjects, you’re not talking to scientists, you’re talking to the general public. If you don’t capture their attention in the first minute they’re gone. 

Q: How do you approach the research of storytelling? 

SK: The best research is through talking to people. But it is messy because you collect large amounts of information. Finally, it is your ability to put it together. If there isn’t something new, it won’t interest others, so it has to have a common denomination. 

Are you aware of the great mathematician Baskaracharya? He wrote the book Lilavati. Lilavati was his eight-year-old daughter, so he wrote the book to explain mathematics to his daughter, an eight-year-old child. And Lilavati grew to be a great mathematician in her own right. 

One of the problems he posed was: Imagine you’re in a field. There is a pillar in the middle of the field, and underneath it is a snake hole in which the snakes burrow. On top of the pole a peacock is sitting. The height of the pole is nine cubits (and so on with measurements). Now a snake is coming toward the hole at the bottom of the pillar. The peacock sees the snake and flies down to catch it. So Baskaracharya asks, “Now Lilavati, tell me quickly, if the speed of the peacock’s flight is this, will it catch the snake before it reaches its burrow, or will it not be able to catch it?” 

Now, to answer the question, you have to understand there is a right angle made by the pillar, the snake is moving toward the pillar, and the peacock is flying down from a certain height. That is what storytelling is all about. When you make a documentary, or any film, you tell stories; that’s the way you communicate.




Q: What has been your takeaway from the TV series, Surabhi, the longest running cultural program in India? How has being its host impacted your life?

SK: When I started Surabhi, I could only speak English. My education was in a co-educational English public school. My grandfather was the last Prime Minister of Kashmir, my step-grandmother was Scottish, and I lived a lot of my life with them, so I spoke English very well. When I started Surabhi, suddenly I was connected with rural India. Surabhi became my education about India. 

Before that, one more inspiration brought me closer to the India I wished to explore and was proud to belong to. I joined Baba Amte, who looked after thousands of lepers in his ashram, which is still there. Forty years ago, he took up a yatra from the southern tip to the northern tip of India, but because he had a spinal disability he traveled lying down in a bus. Hundreds of rural youth from all over India cycled from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, to understand India and give the idea of a united India. I filmed it, so I went on the trip with them. 

For the first time in my life, I was out of big cities into small towns and villages. I saw the hospitality and love of the people. I experienced so much that it became the first springboard to my understanding that there is a world I don’t know. Can I bring this world to other people? With Surabhi, I had a platform, finally. 

The beauty of Surabhi was that it taught me great humility. I realized I didn’t know anything. I still don’t know anything. That helps me to enjoy learning. I enjoyed learning from you about Heartfulness. It’s something new, it has added to my knowledge. So I’m better for that. 

Surabhi taught me that there is an India that even India doesn’t know about. Do you think a person working in the field or the village is conscious that they are part of a great culture? They are just living their lives. That is the unconscious beauty of India. The fact that India is unaware of its own greatness is its greatness. The craftspeople we featured in Surabhi didn’t think they were great. They were just making a living, but they’re living according to the traditional ways that have been there for thousands of years.

Listen, be humble, and find a way to
communicate so that the best of
what you say reaches the
greatest number of people.

Have you seen the film Gandhi, by Richard Attenborough? It won many awards. Toward the end, there is a scene in which Gandhi is talking with an American photographer, Margaret Bourke. And when Gandhi is walking to his last meeting, where he would be shot, Margaret Bourke says, “There goes a man who has a way to change the world. But neither he knows it, nor does the world.” He could change the world, but he was not trying to promote it as a great brand. He didn’t know that he was doing anything great, nor did the world; but now the world knows. The greatness of India is that it does not promote itself as the greatest civilization. 

One of the big principles of life I have observed is to be humble. Observe and listen. We don’t listen. As I am talking now, I’m talking about what I already know. If I listen, as I listened to you in the beginning, I learn more to add to my knowledge. So listen, be humble, and find a way to communicate so that the best of what you say reaches the greatest number of people. 

Q: Thank you! I read your book. I was very impressed with your grandfather—his strong character, determination, and resilience. His mental and emotional strength is inspiring.

SK: I spent my childhood with him. As a Prime Minister, he met with ordinary people. My grandfather had a quality I hope I have inherited—what the Greek philosophers call stoicism. He was a stoic; he would not allow himself to be influenced by things around him, or show that he was influenced by those things. When his imprisoned father died, he was informed in court, and his expression did not change. He accepted. Stoicism has to do with acceptance, and that can be related to Maya. When you see the unreality around you, why take it so seriously? Life is an evolution, things will change, the cycle will change. 

Stoics go through life without melodrama or over-reacting, keeping a meditative approach to life. My grandfather taught me that, and it was his saving grace, because he faced many situations politically and emotionally. He faced them with equanimity. Peaceful calmness is the meditative influence; life is bigger than the events taking place. You observe them and react in an intelligent, unemotional, yet affectionate way, without getting worked up. 

I never saw him lose his temper. That’s a remarkable achievement in today’s world, where we have short fuses. It was his quality. I hope some of it came through in the book, and I hope people will read it. That’s why we gave it the title, Love, Exile, Redemption.



The craftspeople we featured in
Surabhi didn’t think they were great.
They were just making a living, but
they’re living according to the
traditional ways that have been
there for thousands of years.


Q: How do you capture these qualities and very subtly introduce them without speaking them aloud?

SK: Tell me, how do you understand the singing of birds? When a bird sings, and you find it beautiful, do you analyze it? 

Q: No. 

SK: When the sun rises over the mountains early in the morning, and the sky reveals the earth, can you analyze that? You have to bring not just one, but three or four factors into your communication of the beauty of these things. What do you have at your disposal? Finally, when you achieve nirvana, there is no description possible. When you try to describe it, nirvana is beyond. But you have music, words, and pictures at your disposal. 

When an artist paints a beautiful picture, if it is supported by music and words, maybe it will be far more expressive to people who don’t understand it. You can use music, words, and how the camera moves to focus on different aspects of the painting, to explain to people who don’t know what painting is. You use the grammar of the language of cinema. You are expressing the beauty or importance of something that is known to experts in the field, but is not known to an ordinary person. You are the bridge. 

To make the bridge, you need building blocks, and among those building blocks are music, words, visuals, and animation. Use them intelligently and you can communicate well. 

You need to search for connections. Explain in terms that a person understands. Not as scientist to scientist, or professor to professor, but as layperson to layperson. When you speak and write and listen as a layperson listens, then you come back to the eight-year-old girl. Will she understand? 

Let me share a story about language and connectivity. We were once filming in Uzbekistan in Central Asia. The first day we landed to start filming, I had become a little complacent. We had already filmed in eight or ten countries, and in my arrogance I didn’t prepare by looking or researching. I thought, “We will always get the help we want in all the countries we go to. We have always been helped.” 

We landed toward the evening and went straight to the hotel. An interpreter was provided by the Uzbekistan government, but he didn’t speak English. He spoke a very sanitized form of Hindi. This was a challenge, because we’re not so great in Hindi, but we could manage. He needed to go to a funeral and said he would meet us the next day at breakfast. Meanwhile, at the hotel they would look after us. 

When we went to the hotel, there was a sign that said, “Please don’t drink the water from the wash basin.” In America you can drink tap water, but not in Uzbekistan. So we didn’t have water. We rang down for room service and they could not understand us, so they sent soda. Soda doesn’t quench your thirst, but with the little water we had and the soda we drank we were able to pass the night. In the morning, we landed up at breakfast and the first question we asked our guide was where we could find water. He was blank. Our hearts sank. He didn’t know what we were saying. 

Then suddenly his eyes lit up. He understood in Sanskrit that we were trying to get water. Drinking water was 1000 rupees a small bottle, so we got a few because we had a limited amount of money. The rest of the time, we discovered ways of taking water from fruit. 

Anyway, we learned our language lesson. We also learned to be prepared for every situation. It makes for a little adventure and a fun story, but it’s better to be prepared so as not to panic.

To make the bridge, you need building
blocks, and among those building
blocks are music, words, visuals,
and animation. Use them intelligently
and you can communicate well.

Thank you, Purnima, for thinking of me. 

Q: Thank you so much for your responses. 

SK: Even to the questions you didn’t ask? 

Q: Yes! 

Illustrations by ANANYA PATEL