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The Beatles, Orientalism, and Help!

By Gordon Thompson

At the July 29, 1965 premiere of the Beatles’ second film, Help!, most viewers understood the farce as a send-up of British flicks that played on the exoticism of India, while at the same time spoofing the popularity of James Bond. Parallel with this cinematic escapism, a post-colonial discourse began that questioned how colonial powers justified their economic exploitation of the world. Eventually, Edward Said’s Orientalism would describe the purpose of this objectification as “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (1978: 3). In effect, Said and others argued that portrayals of the non-Western other—of which Help!, written by Marc Behm (who had also created Charade, 1963) would be an example—attempted (consciously or otherwise) to justify the myth of European racial superiority. Perhaps Behm, director Richard Lester, and the Beatles saw their film as in the satiric tradition of the Carry On film comedies popular in Britain and parts of the Commonwealth. But for Britain’s growing population of South Asian immigrants, the film would have been one more example of the dominant white culture twisting the identity of an economic underclass to serve the end of dominating it.

Most Westerners have never quite grasped the importance of the Hindu deity Kālī (presented in Help! as “Kāīlī”) and associated her with eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian organized-crime families (Thagīs, the root of the English word, “thug”), some of whom had worshiped her. As the goddess of time, Kālī also represents death, that great leveler of social classes and a figure both honored and feared. British governments fighting crime families profiled Thagī practices, such that for them mother goddess worship joined the list of criminal characteristics. Perhaps they also distrusted any religion that elevated a non-subservient feminine identity to the divine, and Kālī is anything but subservient. Subsequently, Kālī and Thagīs have presented irresistible conflated subjects for novels and films, even as recently as 1984 in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The culturally naïve world of the Beatles in 1965 experienced its own loss of identity control as others attempted to manipulate them, a growing disaster to which they contributed. Earlier that spring, a dentist had surreptitiously spiked Lennon and Harrison’s coffees with LSD at a dinner party in an attempt to ingratiate himself. And the Beatles’ extensive use of marijuana on the set of Help! had rendered them extras in their own film. However, early in the filming, the Indian instruments in one scene attracted George Harrison who would have already been aware of the interest in Indian music floating in the British air that spring and summer. A number of other musical compatriots had already been inspired by Indian music, from the Yardbirds (“Heart Full of Soul” in May) to The Kinks (“See My Friends” in July).

Over the next few years, Harrison would more deeply embrace Indian culture, especially music and Hinduism, and renounce the use of psychoactive drugs. Ironically, youthful Western audiences in the sixties created their own Orientalist vision of Indian culture by creating an association between Indian music and drugs and sex. Of course, their purpose was not to support British economic and military domination of South Asians, but rather to justify their own imagined utopia as an alternative to the culture of their parents and the establishment. The film Help! serves as a punctuation point in a conversation about identity and exploitation: the Western imagined identity of South Asians, the marketed identity of the Beatles, and manipulation of these identities in the pursuit of personal gratification.

Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.

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  2. Peter D

    It’s only a film for Kali’s sake..!

    beatle enthusiast.

  3. Lucy T

    Well said! I’m a huge Beatles fan myself and when I realized the Orientalism present in Help! (just now), I Googled the words “orientalism help beatles” and hoped to come across an article like this. You can still love The Beatles while being critical of their work!

    And to respond to Peter, films don’t exist in a vacuum. They do indeed contain cultural implications and contribute to stereotypes.

  4. Gordon

    Lucy, thanks for the comment. I hope this brief column gave you ideas to pursue. I have a longer version of this piece that hopefully will be part of a book I’m writing on the Beatles.

    The scene was complicated. The music attracted Western musicians for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it represented a complicated art tradition with masters who were not part of the Western Establishment. On the other side of the cultural divide, many of the amateur Indian and Pakistani musicians living in London benefited from the attention, even as they feared having their own immigrant communities identify them with British youth culture. And then there’s the broad human penchant for exploring alternative ideations: while comfortable in our own culture, we are intellectually inspired by other ways of perceiving the world. The music, films, and other artifacts of the sixties can tell us a great deal about an era that has left an indelible mark on us.

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