ACCESS 360° World Heritage: Producer Blog: Taj Mahal

Video highlights from Panasonic Presents: Access 360° World Heritage

Written by Aditya Thayi, Producer/Director and Emma Pimthida Tiemchaiyapum, Assistant Producer

Aditya Thayi, Producer/Director

The pristine image of the Taj Mahal with its fountains and lawns has crept into the world’s common consciousness, so we knew we had to do something different to break away from cliché for this documentary.

Our research showed up scant images, both still and video, of the insides of the Taj Mahal.  According to the Archeological Survey of India, only one French photographer had been allowed inside the emperor’s real tombs to document them and the French, as we know, have their mysterious ways.  

We needed to get access and not just access to the tombs, but the dome, minarets, the top of the mosque – any corner that visitors never get to see.  But standing between us and Access 360 World Heritage – Taj Mahal was the great Indian Bureaucratic Machine.

Being Indian I can make a fair judgment.   It is a system far more complex than the central nervous system, more resilient that nuclear holocaust surviving rodents and far more difficult to navigate than the lost levels of Super Mario Brothers (sadly these secret levels were once blocked in North America by Nintendo executives).  But what does Super Mario Brothers really have anything to do with the Taj Mahal? Nothing.  But this is the Indian bureaucracy so you will have to deal with it.

After hundreds of cups of tea, countless emails, faxes and phone calls to various departments, we finally had an important looking letter that said “Filming Permission”.  So with a bag full of equipment and belly full of hope we show up at the Taj only to be told that our hard earned permission would only allow us to film from a platform 400 meters from the monument.  The Supreme Court of India had banned all filming inside the Taj Mahal and this was being strictly enforced.

What followed were grueling hours in the bowels of offices with names like “The office of the Assistant Conservator, Department of Horticulture – Archeological Survey of India, Agra Circle” or “ The Commissioner of Tourism Police“. Time stood still as our permission papers moved from one office to another seeking futile asylum.

Meanwhile we rescheduled to start filming our scenes that didn’t require the Taj as a backdrop. One scheduling tip – don’t schedule anything during the peak of the Indian summer. We had to coax and at times use mild force to convince our characters to step out into the Agra heat to film with us.  With temperatures reaching 44 degrees by 8:30 am we had to start filming at wee hours in the morning to escape the heat.  Some of our characters protested, but all we had to do is show them their speech patterns and eye movements after 15 minutes of heat exposure, and they were convinced about the early call time.

Even after our reworked permissions arrived, it was an everyday struggle to access different parts of the Taj. We realized that everyone on the ground was very nervous about breaking any rules or hierarchies.

But by the end of the first week everyone working at the Taj knew us by our names albeit they insisted on calling our Assistant Producer Hema instead of Emma. No more security checks for our suspicious looking equipment. They were finally convinced of our intentions and went out of their way to help us. Our fixer once carried the entire key box to every lock in the Taj compound. Munazzar, the conservator in charge of the Taj even offered to conduct a check of the dome that was not scheduled until a few months after our filming.

From getting our equipment locked inside the tomb, to monkeys unplugging our time lapse cameras, from the entire crew coming down with sunstrokes to the crippling Delhi Bellies, this shoot has seen it all but as the cliché goes – it is all worth it in the end. As one tour guide we spoke to rightly put it – “there is a magnet inside the Taj Mahal that attracts everyone to this place. Something happens inside you. It transforms you. It is magic!”

Emma Pimthida Tiemchaiyapum, Assistant Producer

This was my first shoot as an Assistant Producer for National Geographic and also my very first trip to India.

I had done research on the Taj Mahal for months prior to the shoot.  I had watched, listened and read everything Taj Mahal but I had no idea what was really waiting for me in the city of Agra.   

After a months-long struggle to get special permission to film inside the Taj, with numerous International phone calls were made and countless emails were exchanged, we finally made it to India.

Since the rest of the crew, including the Producer, are Indian, Hindi-English translation was not a priority.    As a result, our Singaporean Director of Photography and I were always one step behind… mostly on all the jokes!

Despite language barriers, there were 3 things everyone commonly understood:

1. 4.00AM call time

2. Water

3. Shoe covers

One of my main responsibilities as an AP was providing “water” to the crew. The Taj Security 2nd Commander referred to me as “The Head of Food and Beverage”. In 47-degree weather, a bottle of water is as precious as gold.  At first, I considered my new title a great privilege.  However, I soon learned that carrying 10 bottles of water across a 42-acre complex was anything but a plum assignment. I was constantly asked by visitors how much for one bottle of water as they thought I was selling it!   

The extreme heat of Agra even brought down even our 6-ft tall local fixer, so the crew came up with a challenge to see who would be the last one standing.  One by one we went down but I am very proud to say that I was the third one ill, not the first.

To protect the Taj Mahal’s 380 year-old white marble, everyone stepping onto the marble platform is required to wear shoe covers.  Now when you’re filming a whole documentary about the Taj Mahal, you’re not going up there just once a day.  It’s a constant up and down marble platform which means repeatedly taking off the shoe covers and putting them back on. The shoe covers are made out of some sort of disposable thin fabric which doesn’t take much to tear, so only one round of the mausoleum and we’re already needing new shoe covers!   Needless to say, stocking up shoe covers was another one of my duties.

Towards the end of the shoot we found thick, professional looking shoe covers, just like the fancy ones worn by Taj Mahal authorities.  After 2 weeks of shooting at the Taj, the crew as well as the Taj authorities agreed that it was only fitting that we were upgraded to this type of cover.   These thick brightly colored covers signified we were accepted – we’d cleared all the bureaucracy and were now practically fixtures there, much like the Taj itself.

Despite difficulties, discomfort, and sickness, we lauged a lot on this shoot and I think that is the only way to do it right.

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