Bigger than Woodstock. Bigger than Burning Man. Bigger than the Olympics.
The world's largest religious festival, Kumbh Mela, is a spiritual journey that attracts an estimated 30 million-70 million people and, at least through the Western eyes of filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day, shares a similarly carnivalesque resemblance to those epic assemblages of human mass and celebration.
Every 12 years, gurus and their followers gather near Allahabad, India, for a festival that culminates in a mass dip and spiritual cleansing in the River Ganges. Over the course of the event, a noticeably playful Dalai Lama shows up, outbreaks of dancing occur, and all-male theatrical troupes entertain the crowd.
The structure and mood of Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela, a documentary about the astounding pilgrimage, often resembles concert films like Gimme Shelter and Woodstock (although the film never approaches the skill of either), more committed to delivering the experiential, chaotic character of Kumbh Mela than offering a true understanding of its spiritual scope or participants' points of view.
Short Cut to Nirvana flits between the endless camps where gurus deliver their proclamations, and hordes of followers are served meals cooked in kettles the size of backyard satellite dishes. Some of the camps boast Internet access (one guru sees the Web as an expression of universal brotherhood) and many are reminiscent of the old-time ballyhoo of the circus sideshow, featuring a variety of swami working the crowds with their acts of devotion and transformation. What is clearly a sacred event to the Indian and non-native participants becomes a crazed, depth-less spectacle of cinematic tourism in the hands of the filmmakers, who drop us into the midst of the fracas with no sense of perspective, insight or voice.
Benazzo and Day are less interested in charting the historical and spiritual significance of Kumbh Mela than featuring a mondo exotico visual panoply of extreme spirituality. There's the nail-sitting guru who ups the ante by swinging over burning coals on his nail-spiked chair. Beatific Japanese guru Yog Mata is buried alive for three days and emerges serene and sweatless despite the Indian heat.
There is an omnivorous chaos to the film, like a Girls Gone Wild video craning its neck to gander at every new sight, as it stitches together what one observer describes as the Kumbh Mela's "constant bombardment of your senses."
If a camera can be said to gawk, then gawk this one does, slipping into tents during an epic nine-day chanting session and recording images of gurus such as a former Air Force officer in saffron robes and a bright red, military-style beret who recalls Marlon Brando as the commando-gone-native in Apocalypse Now.
A Tanzanian man with an enormous ceramic disc wedged into his lower lip describes his spiritual message of erasing "dualities" in the world, while assorted gurus proclaim heartfelt messages of anti-materialism and world peace like stumping beauty pageant contestants. Recognizing the premium placed on effective time-management in our country, one guru sardonically observes the difficulty of spiritual meditation in an America where the speedometer never drops below 70 during cell phone conversations and "nobody has time to sit in one posture for three hours."
Your hosts for the spiritualpalooza are a group of young American tourists who have joined the proceedings but prove a weird and distracting presence. Did the directors not have access to a single academic who could describe the significance of Kumbh Mela or put it in context? No Indian writers are interviewed, although the Ameri-centric view of the event is set with an opening quote recounting Mark Twain's Kumbh Mela experience in 1895. Kumbh Mela's origins are dated to 200-500 B.C., but in Short Cut to Nirvana, the event doesn't seem to have begun until the West discovered it.
Instead of academics or experts, we get New York nurse Dyan Summers. Summers is engaged in some amorphous, Pier 1 Imports spiritual quest, but her level of transcendence is called into question when she gleefully notes her picture in a local newspaper with a Hindu guru. Summers attaches herself to a young Indian monk, Swami Krishnanand, who has fled his own family to pursue his spiritual life but who, as one older guru notes, seems obsessively attached to the wide-eyed blond American.
Anyone who's seen a fair number of smaller independent films is aware of the dreadful convention of novice directors who pull their casts from among their friends (who tend to work cheap). The same is true for Short Cut to Nirvana, whose Westerner's view of the proceedings seems the easiest, least challenging path for the directors and parrots back their own golly-gee pioneer experience of Kumbh Mela.
The lack of self-consciousness in depicting this indigenous event through the filter of glorified tourists speaks volumes to the naiveté and, ultimately, the true distance of the filmmakers to an event they so clearly long to honor.