It's hard to nail down the exact number of pilgrims who show up for the Mala Kumbh Mela ("Grand Pitcher Festival"), a massive Hindu spiritual gathering that has taken place every 12 years for more than two millennia on the banks of the Ganges in northern India. Estimates vary -- 30 million, 70 million -- but it's an unthinkable amount of people in any case, and big enough to make a visible smudge of humanity in satellite photos. It has been called the largest human gathering on the planet. You've probably never heard of it.
For this reason, filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day took their video cameras down into the throng during the 2001 Kumbh Mela, and the result is a head-spinning slice of exotica that, disappointingly, skims along the surface of an uncontainable event. It may be unavoidable as well: There are so many sights and sounds (and smells and tastes) here that the urge to cram it all in may have proven irresistible. Can we blame Benazzo and Day for getting the "what" of Kumbh Mela and not the "why"?
Well, yes, we can. Nevertheless, anyone with an interest in India, Hinduism, yoga, and the psychology of mass religious movements will probably want to get down to the Kendall to see "Kumbh Mela," as swirling and unfocused as it is. And people who want to see a holy man twist his penis in a knot around a metal pipe and stand there grinning while two big fellows bounce up and down on the pipe -- well, they'll want to catch the film, too, if only to watch in horror between their fingers.
Kumbh Mela isn't made up of one big gathering so much as hundreds of thousands of small ones, each devoted to a "sadhu," or guru, and his or her followers. Unaffiliated spiritual seekers move between the stalls like hungry men at a buffet, and the movie focuses on a handful of these, chief among them a young Hindu named Swami Krishnanand and a New York City nurse named Dyan Summers. Their friendship seems made of equal parts new age earnestness and old-school hormones -- on Krishnanand's part, at least -- and when Summers diplomatically mentions "cultural differences that have to be worked out," you have a fair idea what she's on about.
Krishnanand is our tour guide for much of "Kumbh Mela," and through him we're exposed to a dizzying array of teachers, fakirs, and engaging charlatans, from the Japanese lady sadhu who is buried in a pit for three days to a man who has held one arm in the air for two decades in an act of devotional intensity to the charmingly childlike sadhu Devehara Hans Baba. Krishnanand acknowledges at one point that many of the leaders only seek followers and a Mercedes -- it's somehow reassuring to know that America doesn't have a lock on religious snake-oil salesmen -- but there are enough tough-minded thinkers to give the film the heft it needs. An appearance by the Dalai Lama, who stresses the links between Hinduism and Buddhism, is a plus.
"Shortcut to Nirvana" is at its strongest cataloging the sheer sensory overkill of the festival -- the faces, the food, the many roads to bliss. Only the slightest historical information is offered and no spiritual background whatsoever: If there's a specific reason you might want to tie your penis in a knot, we never hear it.
Eventually everyone piles en masse into the Ganges for an ecstatic ritual we're told will cleanse your karma for 10 generations on both sides. Thus the film's notion of a "shortcut to Nirvana," which itself sounds like pure snake oil but which is embraced without question, context, or comment by the filmmakers. "Kumbh Mela" takes you to the river and almost drowns you there.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.
Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela