Filming the Avatar

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the filming of Meher Baba at Meherazad on 20 September 1967 by Louis van Gasteren, a 45-year-old Dutch filmmaker. Van Gasteren later released the edited footage as the video Beyond Words. Watching the film and hearing Eruch’s interpretation of Baba’s gestures gives a semblance of being in Baba’s presence and having his darshan. Many people feel that this is the finest film footage of Baba ever taken.

Accompanying Louis on that trip were two young men: a cameraman, Jan de Bont, 24, and a sound engineer, Peter Brugman, 21. After the filming was completed and the trio had left Meherazad, Baba commented, “Louis and his men know their job. I felt happy with Louis, not only because he is an artist, but because he has a good heart. He was impressed very much by my love, as were his two assistants. Louis is a genius in his art. Because of this, and because of his love for me, I cooperated 100 percent and he made the most of this opportunity.” [1]

Years later, van Gasteren wrote about his experience:

“During the [first] meeting with Meher Baba, I felt as if I had known Baba for a long time. I experienced Baba as my brother, sharing with me a deep feeling of aloneness. In fact, I would have loved just to sit with him without talking, without saying a word, and there would have been communication and an even greater feeling of togetherness. In a way, I felt sorry that I had to ask him questions and explain my intentions. If the crew had not been there, I would have been very pleased just to be in his presence in silence.

“…. Baba was very cooperative and happened to be very camera conscious. It became clear to me that he really wanted to be filmed and that he kept constantly everything under control, even checking whether the camera was working when filming him.” [2]

Peter Brugman became a renowned Dutch documentary filmmaker. Looking back on his experience, he recently related:

“At the time we filmed Meher Baba, I had an internship with Louis van Gasteren’s film company. I was young and in the third year of film school in Amsterdam. It was great for me to work on this film. It was challenging for professional reasons: recording sound but also being an assistant cameraman and taking care of lighting. A very important thing for me was that it involved a lot of traveling, around Europe, the USA, Canada and India, meeting many interesting people and experiencing different cultures. Travelling to India especially was a great experience and turned out to be very important in my later life. I went back to India many times.

“A memory of filming Meher Baba that really stands out is that of the very strong spiritual power of Meher Baba. I sensed that directly when I first saw him. An old man with fair skin and greying hair, dressed in white, sitting in his white room on white cushions. His eyes had a remarkable power that is difficult to describe: very lively, speaking, open, warm, understanding, encouraging, loving. It was a very strange experience that, although I had never seen it before, it seemed as if I could understand his sign language quite well. It was as if he could communicate with me in a very direct way—as if he could speak directly with my soul. It was really a very strange and deep experience that I have thought about many times in my life. I still feel very privileged to have met him.” [3]

Jan de Bont became a successful Hollywood producer and director (Speed, with Keanu Reeves, Minority Report, with Tom Cruise, Twister). He recalled:

“It has been quite a while since our visit with Meher Baba in his compound in India. But I do remember that it was quite a remarkable event to meet the holy man. Everyone present was undergoing a change the moment [Meher Baba] stepped in the room. I knew very little about him. Shaking his hands and being able to look into his charismatic eyes, I saw a man who really wanted to connect with you. It was very hard to take your eyes away. Even though he spoke through an interpreter, it felt as if he were speaking to every person in the room. Looking through the camera very close at his face you could feel that [even though] we had met for the first time, he was constantly aware of me.

“At one point I saw through the lens that there were tears in his eyes. I zoomed into a close-up to better see and understand. They were real tears, and everyone nearby became emotional as well. He then dried his tears with a white handkerchief and to my surprise handed it to me after the meeting. This gift made several people a bit jealous, which I did not understand. I kept the handkerchief for years, but unfortunately lost it during one of my many travels. I will never forget his always-smiling, comforting face.” [4]

Louis van Gasteren is standing toward the left, wearing a turban;
Jan de Bont is kneeling; Baba is in the chair in the upper right with
Aloba, Adi K. Irani, Francis, Baba’s brother Jal and Eruch.

Eruch (partially hidden) and Sarosh are behind Baba on our left.
Jan de Bont is in the blue shirt and Peter Brugman in the yellow shirt.

Baba with Jal, Eruch and Jan de Bont.

Jan de Bont is filming Baba with Louis van Gasteren (kneeling) and Eruch (standing right).

Jan de Bont filming Baba at Meherazad.

All photos courtesy of Spectrum Film.
—David Fenster for Avatar Meher Baba Trust, 12 October 2017

[1] Lord Meher, online, p. 5289.
[2] Beyond Words, DVD booklet, p. 18.
[3] Email to D. Fenster, September 2017.
[4] Email to D. Fenster, September 2017.