FAS­CI­NATED BY FAITH

Mo­ti­vated to meet peo­ple who have ab­so­lute cer­tainty about their faith, Shaun Mi­callef, in Stair­way to Heaven, trav­els to In­dia where he ex­plores the Hindu re­li­gion and asks some pretty big ques­tions

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - TV - ANNA BRAIN

It’s hard to imag­ine TV with­out Shaun Mi­callef. Yet if he’d pur­sued his ro­man­tic teenage no­tion of join­ing the priest­hood, things might have turned out very dif­fer­ently.

“It was a gen­uine thought,’’ Mi­callef, 52, says.

“It’s rather common with Catholic school­boys at the age of 14 at an all-boys school. I re­mem­ber talk­ing about it with one of the Marist Brothers in Ade­laide. He said, ‘Oh, just give it a cou­ple of years’.

“I think he was quite as­tute. With the school so­cial at the end of the year, he thought I might be re­think­ing it. But I al­ways took the ser­mons very se­ri­ously in church and lis­tened to what was be­ing said and asked quite a few ques­tions af­ter­wards of the priest, prob­a­bly much to his an­noy­ance.”

Mi­callef’s ques­tion­ing na­ture hasn’t changed. In Shaun Mi­callef’s Stair­way to Heaven, he trav­els to In­dia, ex­plor­ing the Hindu re­li­gion and ask­ing some pretty big ques­tions.

“The mo­ti­va­tion for the whole trip was to meet peo­ple who have ab­so­lute cer­tainty about their faith,” he says.

“I don’t have that. I have a bunch of ques­tions. That’s the key to this se­ries. I meet peo­ple who have been struck by light­ning, es­sen­tially, and had this great epiphany.”

Hav­ing said that, he is aware that re­li­gious zealots can sound slightly bonkers. Not to men­tion him­self.

“I sound vaguely like a psy­cho,” he says in the doco. “Prob­a­bly I am a psy­cho, hav­ing some kind of break­down.”

Along the way, Mi­callef, a self-pro­fessed germa­phobe, at­tends the Char­iot Fes­ti­val in Puri, meets a guru in Harid­war and sur­prises him­self by dip­ping into the Ganges.

“I’d read a bit too much about the state of the wa­ter, it’s filthy,” he says. “It’s not even fit for agri­cul­tural use, they don’t put it on their crops. I can­not be­gin to tell you how filthy that wa­ter was.

“I didn’t even want to stand in it when we were at Harid­war. I did ac­ci­den­tally. I think I was in the wrong queue and I just ended up be­ing part of the rit­ual. But when we got up to up Gan­gotri (the ori­gin of the river), there are huge blocks of ice and I did stop and drink it. And I can’t be­lieve I ac­tu­ally drank the wa­ter, now that I’m say­ing it, but I did. I wouldn’t have done it at the be­gin­ning.”

As a first-time vis­i­tor to In­dia, Mi­callef took ev­ery pre­cau­tion.

“I lost a bit of weight. I avoided so much food while I was over there be­cause I was so wor­ried about get­ting ill. I lost prob­a­bly the same amount of weight I would have if I had con­tracted some­thing.”

Weight wasn’t all he lost. Iron­i­cally, as he sought out peo­ple who have re­nounced their earthly pos­ses­sions, he lost his own.

“Quite by ac­ci­dent, the air­line hap­pened to lose my lug­gage for a week. So I went and bought a shirt and a pair of trousers, I had no shav­ing gear or any­thing. At the end of that first week, I looked like a ter­ri­ble wreck. I thought, ‘what the hell, I may as well just con­tinue on’.

“This was only ap­par­ent when I looked back at it, I watched the edit and thought ‘Oh, I seem to be turn­ing into an old man liv­ing in a cave’.”

Never stuck for words or a quip, the hard­est part of Mi­callef’s trip was a silent trek, an in­tro­spec­tive up­hill climb into the moun­tains. It was here that his fa­mous sense of hu­mour fi­nally de­serted him.

“That was de­press­ing. I mean, I’m an old man, in the Hi­malayas. Of course there’s very thin air and you’re climb­ing for a lot of it. I couldn’t walk 500m with­out hav­ing to sit down, I thought they were go­ing to have to air­lift me out of there. I thought, ‘That’d make a nice shot for the end but I don’t want to die’.

“Any shred of a sense of hu­mour seemed to dis­ap­pear at that point. I was just glumly wan­der­ing along. I guess the whole point was to ac­tu­ally think, which I did.”

In re­cent years, he has switched ef­fort­lessly be­tween net­works with Mad As Hell on ABC, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Gen­er­a­tion and Mr and Mrs Mur­der on Ten and New­stopia on SBS.

Next year, Mi­callef hopes to spend more time mak­ing do­cos for SBS.

Shaun Mi­callef trav­els to In­dia for

Stair­way to Heaven, on SBS ONE on Sun­days.

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