’Ganges’ begins with “Daughter of the Mountains,” an examination of the river’s origin in the glacial meltwaters of the Himalayas (the youngest mountain range on the planet), its descent toward the Northern Plain, and its eventual arrival in the holy city of Haridwar. Narrator Sudha Bhuchar introduces the religious beliefs the local Hindus associate with the river, the respect they pay to its waters, and their coexistence with the wildlife that thrives in the surrounding mountains. Next, “River of Life” tracks the course of the mighty river as it feeds into the plains and filters through a marshy series of grasslands called the Terai. Bhuchar continues with a discussion about the Ganges’ troubling pollution levels, the dying people struggling to live with its dirty waters, and the state of the animals in the face of a dense population boom. Finally, “Waterland” follows the river as it passes through Brahmaputra and empties into the Bay of Bengal. In its most remarkable entry, ‘Ganges’ looks at the volatile relationship between the people and beasts of the Sundarbans Fores, the waning reign of the tiger, and the crowded villages seated amidst the delta’s many channels.
Like other HD-photographed BBC productions before it (‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Galapagos,’ to name a few), ‘Ganges’ fuses an engaging tale of India’s history and culture with incredible, breathtaking footage of its sprawling vistas and indigenous wildlife. Tigers circle villages with menacing majesty, endangered rhinoceroses and river dolphins struggle to survive insurmountable atrocities, and mountain cats descend steep rocks in search of food. However, ‘Ganges’ is also a haunting study of the troubles faced by one of the most bountiful rivers in the world. Manmade sludge sullies the deltas, waste litters the shores, and endless crowds of impoverished people stretch into the horizon. By the end of the first episode, I stopped focusing on the documentary’s beautiful scenery and began to grasp the ecological and societal threats that plague the Ganges.
Of course, Sudha Bhuchar’s languid narration deserves substantial credit for effectively conveying the wonder of the imagery and the harsh realities of life along the river. She doesn’t merely recite her lines, but seems to feel a genuine connection to her country and its people. While some may find her reading a bit dry, even a hint of excitement or exuberance would have clashed with the ultimate message and tone of the documentary. Like the best documentaries on the market, ‘Ganges’ allows the viewer to absorb the photography and rely on the narration to simply fill in the gaps left between each shot. Besides, anyone who’s watched other BBC Natural History Unit productions should be all too familiar with the objective intonations of their narrators.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once wrote that “the story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture, the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, and of adventures of man.” To that end, BBC’s ‘Ganges’ is a resounding success. It examines the cultural and historical significance of the river, explores its role as the lifeblood of a nation, and reveals the alarming state of its waters today. Sure, it may not be as all-encompassing as ‘Planet Earth’ or as bizarre as ‘Galapagos,’ but it delivers everything a great documentary should -- an engaging subject, stunning footage, and plenty of fascinating information.
’Ganges’ features a solid 1080i/VC-1 transfer that nearly lives up to the visual splendor of ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Galapagos.’ Colors are strong and natural, contrast is bold and bright, and shadows are deep and well delineated. Whether the camera is focused on the icy blue hues of the Himalayas or the sun-drenched plains of the river proper, primaries pop and create the sort of three dimensional picture I’ve come to expect from proficient high-def transfers. Better still, detail is impressive throughout the production, boasting plenty of crisp edges and clean textures. I could easily count the individual hairs on a distant mountain cat, the tiny stones scattered along the river bed, and the stubble on the faces of the Sundarban villagers. While I did encounter a bit more intermittent softness than I expected to find, such mishaps should be attributed to the original source rather than Warner’s technical transfer.
Unfortunately, ‘Ganges’ suffers from noise. Artifacts occasionally flutter across the screen, nighttime shots exhibit a bit of crushing, and I caught some color banding shooting across the skies. While individual instances of each issue are brief and relatively negligible, the frequency of the noise brings the transfer down a notch. Even so, ‘Ganges’ looks better than the majority of nature documentaries available on Blu-ray, outclasses its standard DVD counterpart and HDTV broadcast, and will make an excellent addition to your collection.
When ‘Ganges’ disappoints, it’s at the hands of a bland DTS 5.1 surround track that simply doesn’t have a lot to do aside from methodically supporting the on-screen visuals. As one might expect, Bhuchar’s narration anchors the majority of the soundfield to the front speakers and doesn’t lend itself to an immersive surround experience. Every time she starts to speak, the secondary elements in the soundfield are hushed to avoid overpowering her soft-spoken voice. Of course, the very nature of a narrated documentary requires a sacrifice from the LFE channel and while the rear speakers are still functional, they rarely engage the listener and only manage to offer a few sonic surprises. Thankfully, Bhuchar’s line reading sounds crisp, clear, and consistent throughout each episode.
If I have any significant technical complaint, it’s that effects still sound a bit muddled and compressed even when Bhuchar stops speaking. I appreciated the thunderous steps of rhinoceroses, the populated chatter of crowd noise, and the throaty growly of tigers, but I thought the entire soundtrack would really benefit from more showcase moments than it did. As it stands, ‘Ganges’ merely delivers an average high-def audio experience that sounds too similar to its standard DVD counterpart to nab a higher score from me.
(Note this Blu-ray disc includes English, Hindi, and Bengali narration.)
’Ganges’ arrives on Blu-ray with the same pair of features that appear on the DVD. I’m still surprised that a documentary of this nature doesn’t have hours and hours of deleted footage for your viewing pleasure, but this disc at least includes a few cuts and extensions. However, considering the fact that BBC’s sister-project ‘Galapagos’ was released without any supplemental content, I’ll take what I can get.
’Ganges’ is a spectacular documentary that reveals the challenges and tribulations facing India’s foremost source of life, history, and culture. More than a series of beautiful images, this BBC production is lyrical and haunting, giving viewers a taste of our fading natural world. Alas, this Blu-ray release is a bit of a mixed bag. It features a solid video transfer, but merely offers an average audio track and a light collection of supplements. Still, documentary fans will find the disc’s shortcomings to be par for the course. If you enjoyed ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Galapagos,’ consider ‘Ganges’ to be another worthy addition to your shelf.