‘Play Like a Lion’ Explores the Spiritual, Historical, and Familial History of an Ancient Style of Music

By Arturo Conde – Univision News

Music sets things in motion. When you listen to a melody, it can vibrate inside of you, stirring up sentiments of happiness, sadness, fear, and nostalgia. At other times, a note can sound so familiar that you feel like you are hearing the voice of an old friend. Music gives us a certain cadence and tone that drives our lives toward a destination, and tuning into this sense of direction -– discovering who we are and where we are going –- is the theme of Joshua Dylan Mellars’ third music documentary Play Like a Lion, which has already made waves at sold out film festivals in Germany, Canada, and the United States.

Mellars’ film profiles the virtuous North Indian classical musician Ali Akbar Khan, who, with the weighty, introspective sound of his sarode, was able to influence American musicians like Carlos Santana, John Handy, Derek Trucks, and the Grateful Dead.

“He is one of the few who have, like Bob Marley and Coltrane, the universal tone,” said Santana as he punches his left fist into his right palm for emphasis. Santana links Khan’s universality to the spiritual power of the Indian maestro’s sarode music, which he describes as the nourishing and healing sound of “singing water.”

North Indian classical music began as a spiritual music, which ultimately made its way into the royal courts. The Mughal emperor Akbar became one of the music’s early royal patrons, sponsoring Mian Tansen in the 16th century. Tansen’s artistry became so renowned that he is remembered in Indian popular culture today as having the power to control the rain and fire through his music. The knowledge of Tansen’s music was carefully guarded, taught, and passed down solely through blood relations until Tansen’s descendant Ustad Wazir Khan taught it to Khan’s father.

Beneath the surface of this very Indian story is a family saga that appeals to all parents and their children. The film depicts how Khan’s son Alam, struggles with the idea of following in his father’s footsteps in spite of their loving relationship.

“My father never forced me to play music,” he said. “But since I am in this family, the expectations I have for myself are probably higher than I can meet. And so that is something I am going to have to come to terms with in my life.”

Khan taught his son that being a musician is like a religious vocation, where through much dedication, one can acquire the same level of enlightenment that saints and sages gain through meditation. But as we watch Khan’s son aspiring to play every note with the skill of his father, the film makes us wonder whether Alam’s desire to learn and play his family’s music will be enough to succeed.

Mellars’ devotion to music similarly compelled him to go on a 14-year journey through Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, and back to his home state of California, where he completed the filming of Play Like a Lion. He had been exposed to different kinds of music through his parents at an early age. Those sounds set him in motion to follow a career path that crossed over from acting to journalism.

“I looked at journalism as if I were preparing for a theatrical role,” he recalled. “I bought all the props I would need –- a recorder, a reporter’s pad, a suit -– hopped on a plane and improvised.”

As a reporter, Mellars not only met political figures like Hugo Chavez -– the Venezuelan president referred to him as his “shadow,” and in between news stories they played each other in friendly baseball matches -– but he also learned how to use music as a cultural lens through which to report on economic and political stories. In Argentina, for instance, Tango and the “cacerolazos” (the banging of pots in protest of the Argentinean government) became the soundscape for his stories covering Argentina’s political and economic meltdown in 2001.

Similar to Joshua, music has led Khan’s son to discover his own personality and character. Towards the end of the film we see how he has learned that being a good sarode player is not about emulating the masterful technique of his father, but playing the music for himself.

“When I am nervous,” Khan’s son said, “he [Khan] tells me to take it out of my mind and enjoy and play the music — be free, play like a lion.”

Play Like a Lion will be presented at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco on Sunday, February 19 at 2 pm, as part of the “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts” exhibit. The film will also be screened at other festivals throughout the year, including the Santa Cruz Film Festival, which runs May 10-19.