“Kumbh Mela: Short Cut to Nirvana” is a beautifully crafted documentary that details the organized chaos and curious piety surrounding the Kumbh Mela, an Indian religious festival held on 12-year intervals for the past two millennia. The most recent festival attracted an estimated 70 million people (eat your heart out, Billy Graham!).
Filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day do a wonderful job in capturing the color, commotion and cacophony of the Kumbh Mela, which seems to put more emphasis on razzle-dazzle than religion. The festival is overpopulated with swamis, yogis and gurus who offer opaque words of wisdom designed to help steer the faithful to a more serene life and afterlife. Yet the Kumbh Mela often seems more like a circus: evening theatrical events present religious dramas with some damn hammy actors going to town in what are supposed to be plays of faith, special kiosks are set up to enable the attendees to stay connected to the Internet, and special kitchens are engineered to prepare heaping gobs of what looks to be some of the least appetizing food ever put on a plate.
The film benefits from having Swami Krishnanand, a young articulate and photogenic Indian mystic, as its quasi-narrator who tries to make sense of what is going on. The swami gets to show the camera much of the festival and even shows off a lot of himself in an extended sequence where he strips to a loincloth and bathes in the Ganges River.
But “Kumbh Mela: Short Cut to Nirvana” falls seriously short is getting to the theological heart of the celebration. Much of what is captured on camera will seem strange to Western audiences (including a holy man who insists on keeping one arm raised in the air and a Japanese woman yogi who allows herself to be buried in a pit for three days). Yet the film never gives even a basic understanding of the Hindu religious traditions that are supposedly at the foundation of the Kumbh Mela activities; some of the holy men on display here are so evasive and vague in their spiritual discourses that they seem more like con artists than fountains of piety, which cannot possibly be the purpose of the film. Even worse, too much time is wasted by the presence of several photogenic but boring young Americans who keep turning up on camera to spout vapid gee-whiz commentary about what is happening around them. Having them in the film makes this seem like an episode of MTV’s “Road Rules” rather than a serious study of Indian religion.
But even if the film is lacking as a serious theological overview, “Kumbh Mela: Short Cut to Nirvana” is a handsomely photographed, beautifully edited, and constantly absorbing glimpse into a unique corner of the human experience. Western audiences may not understand everything they see in this film, but the film nonetheless makes for absorbing viewing and is highly recommended for anyone in search of a different answer to universal questions of faith and hope.

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