Zeitgeist Films // 2004 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // February 16th, 2006
"Pilgrims plodded for months to get here, worn, poor, and hungry, but sustained by unwavering faith." Mark Twain (Kumbh Mela, 1895)
The Kumbh Mela is a weeks-long gathering in Northern India that takes place every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The 2001 Kumbh Mela was a more anticipated and grander celebration than usual, because it was the first festival in 144 years to take place during the so-called Grand Alignment of the planets; an estimated 70 million pilgrims arrived to see the sights, mingle with holy men, and commune with their gods by way of a dip in the sacred Ganges.
Hindu legend has it that amrit, the nectar of the gods and elixir of immortality, was partly spilled from its vessel and touched the land in four places. Hence, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated in three-year intervals at four different locations where the drops of amrit fell to earth. Allahabad, the meeting place of the holy Ganges, Yamuna, and mystical, invisible Saraswati rivers, is the location of the largest of these festivals -- and the subject of the documentary.
The Kumbh Mela is a fertile recruiting ground for the Babas, Gurus, Yogis, and other self-proclaimed masters of Dharma who claim allegiance to one god or another in the deity-laden Hindu pantheon (Shiva, Rama, Khrishna, and Kali -- to name only a few). These ascetic holy men (sadhus) devote themselves to a particular god with varying degrees of rigor and discipline. I've read that as few as 1 in 10 followers who select a guru are still with him in three years, so the sadhus must apply themselves diligently to drum up a new crop of followers at each festival. Some of the sadhus filmed here have gone to prodigious lengths to compete with their enlightened brethren to attract would-be disciples. Footage of an emaciated yogi seated on a bed-of-nails that swings over hot coals will probably not startle most Westerners; the majority of Americans have read about or seen videos of this kind of stunt. However, I'd wager that not many have seen a sadhu wrap his penis around the middle of a five-foot stick and then invite a spectator to climb onto his back and stand on the stick. The spiritual point of such prestidigitation escapes me, but it did prompt one of the sadhu's disciples to enthuse that his master "can pull an automobile" in a similar manner.
In Short Cut to Nirvana, Filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day taped thousands of hours of the event on mini-DV with a Sony PD-150 video camera. They captured some remarkable footage of an event unknown to many -- probably most -- Westerners, though it dwarfs any other single gathering of humankind by many orders of magnitude. The more conventional segments of the documentary -- the talking heads footage -- include several interviews with sadhus, mostly seated in their individual tents, and comments from the three westerners who accompanied the directors. Benazzo and Day convey some of the festival's sensory overload with a slow motion montage of images and a narrative that describes the pungent, noisy, dust-laden landscape that engulfs them. There is footage of tents festooned with thousands of lights and marigolds, more akin to an oversized, flower-draped carnival barker's booth than a holy man's temporary residence; peddlers selling "eye-wash" to credulous onlookers; a young Indian girl trance-dancing like a whirling dervish to the hypnotic vocal strains of a sadhu perched atop an open wooden hut; a sadhu who has held his right arm rigid and aloft for so many years it looks more like a withered stick than a human limb; a procession of naked Naga Babas hopping and spinning like possessed lunatics as they wend their way through the crowd to the banks of the Ganges.
Despite the entertaining footage captured on video, the sheer size of the Kumbh Mela seems to have overwhelmed the filmmakers. It is a gargantuan holy carnival that can be traced back to roughly 300 BC; its antediluvian history and jumbled mosaic of sights, sounds, and ideologies cannot be treated in any depth by a short documentary film, and the directors admit as much on one of the featurettes. Their original ideas on how to film the event (rather nebulous by their own admission) were thrown by the wayside when they arrived at the festival and were overwhelmed by the culturally alien spectacle of the Kumbh Mela. The documentary is entertaining for its sights and sounds, but just skims across the surface without delving, even marginally, into Indian history or politics.
There are several extra features, including a fairly interesting retrospective by the directors and small cast in which they reminisce about their experiences four years after the filming. The best extra includes extended interviews with the spiritual leaders. My favorite was the interview with Purna Praghnamataji, the only female sadhu taped, who discusses the basic concepts of Dharma, Satsang, and what it means to be a Guru. She also corrects a few misconceptions about Hinduism and explains her beliefs in a clear and cogent manner. Her comportment is a breath of fresh air when compared to the sideshow razzmatazz that some of her colleagues display.
The picture is very good for videotape, with a vivid color palette and no egregious artifacts. The audio, music in particular, is much better than average for a documentary. The rear speakers even occasionally sustain the illusion of being in the midst of a crowd. The DVD is, all around, a nice visual and aural package -- especially for a low budget documentary.
Short Cut to Nirvana is light fare, lacking much history or scholarly explication. Nonetheless, it might prompt the viewer to investigate the Kumbh Mela further, and the disc is worth a rental just to view the chaotic spectacle through a camera lens.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Pilgrims from the West -- Four years on
* The Filmmakers
* Theatrical Trailer
* Mela Gallery
* BBC News: Kumbh Mela pictured from space