Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering that people have never heard of. Every four years, at last count anywhere from thirty to seventy million people will trek to one of four rotating cities in India for a spiritual festival. Every twelve years the Kumbh Mela takes on more importance as the city of Allahabad, situated between the Ganges, Saraswati and Yamuna rivers hosts. The pilgrims construct what amounts to a huge tent city, with different booths dedicated to different swamis, yogis, and sadhus. There are a number of ways to look at the Kumbh Mela, and directors Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day opt for the least enlightening.

There is nothing deep about Short Cut to Nirvana. Day and Benazzo's approach at the 2001 Kumbh Mela amounts to an extended vacation video, with Swami Krishanand as the guide, giving his view on the proceedings and interviewing many of the yogis. Aside from some perfunctory information, there is little meaningful information on Hindu beliefs, history of the Kumbh Mela, or in depth examinations at the various holy men. Instead, Krishanand, American Dyan Summers, and some others appear every so often to offer some observational comments about the proceedings. Most of the conversations tend to be pretty superficial, and the ones that do have depth are too cryptic to decipher.

One good aspect of this approach is that Benazzo and Day show the sheer variety of people and events occurring. There are holy men from all over the world, and tents spring up out of nowhere to feed thousands of people at a time. There are people like Yog Mata (a Japanese woman) who buries herself for three days, Avadhoot Baba, who sits on nails while swinging over a fire, and the Dalai Lama, who comes to preach unity. Many of the yogis are looking for a sense of enlightenment, and try to achieve this by doing thinks like holding one arm in the air for years (so what exactly happens when he goes to sleep?) or twisting one's penis around a pole, then having somebody jump on the pole. Sadly, with minimal context to all of these actions, one can almost take many of the actions as comical.

When the directors focus on the festival and its adherents and less on Summers and some of the other Americans, Short Cut to Nirvana works. The Kumbh Mela ends with a ceremonial bathing in the Ganges River by all of the pilgrims, and it's quite a spectacle to watch. It's also dizzying to think of all of the logistical aspects of the Kumbh Mela, and what its organizers need to do in order to stage one successfully. This documentary captures some of the controlled chaos of the festival, and the richness of tradition, but because of the lack of insightful information, feels like a travelogue.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.

1 hour, 25 minutes, Hindi and English with English subtitles, Not Rated but contains some nudity, probably an R, possibly a PG-13.

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