Houston Chronicle Joshua Dylan Mellars

Film explores the rich sound of an Indian music icon

by Colin Eatock – Houston Chronicle

“When I’m nervous,” the musician Alam Khan says, “I remember what my father always says: to just enjoy the music and be free. Play like a lion.”

Alam’s father was the late Ali Akbar Khan, a key figure in the introduction of Indian music to the West. He brought his sarod – a lutelike instrument with 25 strings – to California in the 1960s, were he taught Hindustani classical music for many years.

This music resonates through filmmaker Joshua Dylan Mellars’ “Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan” from beginning to end. Shot in India and the U.S., it’s a sensual film: rich and colorful, both visually and aurally.

The 72-minute English-language documentary will be screened tonight by WorldFest Houston at the AMC Studio 30.

However, there’s more to this film than music. Like his father, Alam plays the sarod. But unlike his father, he was born in America. As a result, “Play Like a Lion” is also about a father-son relationship, and about the transplanting of a musical culture from one country to another.

“I wanted to make a documentary that connoisseurs would enjoy,” says Mellars, from his home in San Francisco, “but also that someone who knows nothing about Indian music could watch and understand. It’s a music that’s immediately accessible, but as with any classical art form, it helps if you know some of the background and the cultural context.”

The 37-year-old journalist turned filmmaker has made films about “exotic” world music his speciality. He’s also made documentaries about Argentinean tangos and Portuguese fado music. It was a friend (and the film’s producer) Mojib Aimaq who urged him to take on the music of India.

Mellars confesses that he wasn’t sure how to approach the subject until he heard Alam Khan play a concert.

“When I saw Alam perform, I saw him as someone that audiences would feel comfortable with – getting to know his roots and getting to know his father through his own journey.”

Mellars shot “Play Like a Lion” during six years, from 2005 to 2011. He began by filming concerts in California and then traveled to India with Alam, to Maihar, the town where Alam’s father grew up. It was here that the Khans once performed at the court of the local maharajah.

The film is also peppered with American musicians who have come into contact with the Khan family: guitarists Carlos Santana and Derek Trucks, saxophonist John Handy and drummer Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. Each in their own way, they acknowledge Ali Akbar as an influence.

Says Hart, “The Grateful Dead wouldn’t be the Grateful Dead without Khan.”

Ali Akbar appears only intermittently on screen, yet he hovers over the project like a guru, making spiritual observations. “Music is actually food for your soul,” he declares at one point. A little later he adds, “Music is next to God!”

The elder Khan died in 2009, at 87, during the making of the film. His passing highlights the weight his son – six decades younger than his father – bears on his shoulders, as the inheritor of a musical tradition going back generations.

“The expectations I have for myself,” Alam says, “are probably higher than I can meet. That’s something I’ll have to come to terms with.”

Yet music is in Alam’s blood. His father’s death seems to strengthen his resolve to uphold his family’s musical status in India while promoting Indian music in America.

“Play Like a Lion” premiered in Berlin in 2011, has since been seen in San Francisco, Washington, Denver, London, Vancouver and other cities.

For the Houston premiere, Mellars will attend the Worldfest screening and will answer questions from the audience after.