The closing night film for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival has an unusual setting – India. The documentary Mandala Beats, directed by Montreal-based Rebekah Reiko, features celebrated Israeli musician Yossi Fine as he discovers his roots in India and undertakes his first journey to the country.
Fine is renowned as a bassist, having worked with David Bowie and Lou Reed, and Indian artistes like Anoushka Shankar. While he is of mixed Lithuanian and Jamaican descent, he found out a couple of years ago that his great-grandmother was originally from India when he was given DVDs of interviews with his parents.
“Sitting there and watching, all of the sudden I realise, my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, from her father’s side, came from India. I was floored because I never knew about this, nobody talked about it,” Fine said in an interview.
Somewhat serendipitously, a few months later, he received an invitation to perform at a festival in Jodhpur. “Wow, I have to go to India. I always wanted to but all of a sudden it was way, way stronger,” he said of his reaction.
Just as fateful was his encounter with Reiko, as they were taking the same flight from Tel Aviv to Mumbai in the autumn of 2015. Reiko was focused on making a film about Israeli musicians and their Indian influence. “I thought making a movie about music in those two places, with distinct styles mixing together, would be so cool,” she said.
And after talking to Fine, she settled upon the central character for the film: “He told me his whole story (during the flight) and that was part of the reason why I wanted to focus on him.”
The film accompanies Fine as he hones in on Indian rhythms prior to his performance in Jodhpur and for an impromptu concert of sorts on the banks of Ganga in Rishikesh.
That makes for a movie that is visually strong and one that comes with its own soundtrack, created along the way. Reiko said the two locations were “both very contrasting” and added, “I definitely focused on such extremely beautiful places in the country, for sure.”
Fine said finding himself in India seemed “very natural.” As he recalled, “When I came to India it was incredible. It was like a missing part of something I was looking for.”
Musically, he found that bass wasn’t integral to Indian music, folk and classical. As he had previously worked on music in the Sahara, particularly in Mali, he incorporated that into his sessions with Rajasthani players: “My approach was to borrow a little bit from African music and apply it to Indian music.”
Fine looks forward to more visits to India in the future, as he said, “India is a special place with special energy. I will be back for sure.”
The film is a joint Canadian/Israeli/Indian production, and Reiko said while a few scenes were set in Israel, “the majority of the film was filmed in India.” It will be screened on May 14, the last day of the festival which begins this Thursday.
Reiko, meanwhile, said her initial objective had been realised as her film has such a prominent place at a major film festival in Canada: “I learnt so much from my travels through India. I felt like including that in a film so I could share that with others.”