Korla Pandit’s stage persona was sort of a
weird combination of Sun Ra and Liberace, but he predated them both. In fact,
Pandit somewhat resented the latter for moving in on his act, with some
justification. He was the musical prodigy son of a Brahmin priest and a French
opera singer, who found fame on American television combining his keyboard
wizardry with his seductive stare—except, maybe he wasn’t. So who the heck was
he? The truth will be revealed in John Turner & Eric Christensen’s Korla (trailer
here), which screens this Thursday and Saturday at
the Smith Rafael Film Center.
Even if you know Pandit’s secret, it is still
fascinating to watch Turner & Christensen chronicle his career and
competing narratives. The story is already in the public record thanks to journalist
RJ Smith, who covered Pandit extensively in the Los Angeles press and touched
on his strange but true biography in the terrific book The Great Black Way, a history of the Central Avenue music scene.
Smith will be our primary guide through this tale, but we will not spoil it
prematurely for those uninitiated in Panditry.
Frankly, it seems astounding today that LA’s
KTLA would program fifteen minutes of music from Pandit every weekday
afternoon, with absolutely no talking. Apparently, the station manager lacked
confidence in Pandit’s voice, so he had to do all his talking with his eyes.
Clearly, it worked, because Pandit became a major celebrity. Unfortunately,
that Liberace kid eventually took over his time slot, thus commencing the
classic show business cycle of ups and downs.
Still, Pandit hung on pretty darn well. He
recorded extensively for Fantasy Records during its Dave Brubeck-Cal Tjader
glory years and became something of a spiritual guru in his own right. In fact,
one can easily imagine how his slightly World Music-ish keyboard stylings might
have contributed to the rise of the various New Age movements that took root in
California (and were so memorably parodied in Serial). Yet, there is much, much more to the story.
To their credit, Turner & Christensen
understand Pandit’s assumed backstory is just as important as his true history.
After all, he clearly did his best to become the Korla Pandit we thought we
knew. However, they also fully explore the significance of who he really was
and why he felt compelled to make certain choices. Despite his Indian identity,
there is indeed something classically American about his drive to reinvent
himself. They also give his music all due respect, celebrating the “exotic” in
exotica, rather than trying to score snarky points at his expense.
Pandit’s story is
absolutely fascinating and the assembled archival film clips, audio recordings,
and still photos of the unclassifiable musician represent the essence of
retro-cool. Any documentary about Pandit would be wildly cinematic, because how
could it not be? However, Turner & Christensen and Smith tell his narratives
with appropriate sensitivity and rigorously researched authority. They did
right by their subject, because viewers will come to understand where he came
from and want to hear more of his unique sound. Enthusiastically recommended, Korla screens this Thursday (10/29) and
Saturday (10/31) at the Smith Rafael Film Center, with further screenings
scheduled across the country, including the St. Louis International Film Festival on November 15th.
Labels: Documentary, Exotica, Korla Pandit