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
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.