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Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela   (released 10/17/2005)
By Neil Norman

Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela is a fantastic documentary that chronicles the filmmakers' firsthand exploration of the longest running religious festival in recorded history. Dating back as far as 500 BC, the Kumbh Mela at Prayag near Allhabad (one of four Indian cities/areas that host the event) happens every 12 years. Prayag is located at the confluence of the two holiest rivers, the Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna, where in the early morning hours, millions of people go to ritually bathe. When the filmmakers visited the Kumbh Mela in 2001, 40 to 70 million people were estimated to have attended the festival.

Directors Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day present some nice footage of famous Swamis, sadhus, and yogis. Although I didn’t have much more than a layman's knowledge on Indian Spiritualism before the screening, I found it fascinating to listen to each person's spiritual views and personal take. The footage of the Dalai Lama and his lecture on the coming together of all religions is especially moving.

The documentary structure is mainly made up of personal interviews, intercut with footage of crowd shots and spectacles that the festival has to offer. The filmmakers follow four American visitors around who are eventually adopted by a young, charismatic monk named Sri Swami Krishnanand. He leads the films makers and viewers around, translating and explaining and generally helping us along the path. This guide in the sometimes chaotic maelstrom of the huge throng of millions is very helpful, and a comedic relief to boot.

The filmmakers juxtapose images of carnival style performers like fakirs sitting on nails and yogis performing mystical tricks, with pure spiritual teachings from some of India's most respected holy men. One sadhu's follower, a Japanese woman, was buried in a pit in the ground for three days, where she stayed in a meditative state. The footage where she comes out of the ground is spectacular, because she has drawn a crowd of many thousands. Another spellbinding image occurs when hundreds of ash-smeared Naga Babas (religious men who have taken vows to live naked) are the first ones to run in the Mother Ganga river on the Main Bathing Day.

The filmmakers present an unbiased opinion on the teachings of the thousands of Babas and swamis by showing us both sides. One woman interviewed estimates that only 20% of the holy men are genuine, with the other 80% putting on the holy man's robes just for the perks and adulation of followers. The good thing about this film is that it thematically embraces the Indian attitude of Ahimsa, or tolerance of many different religious beliefs.

I was really impressed by this film. It was very colorful and something new. I think it does a great service in documenting the ability of millions of people to come together in search of love, enlightenment, and most importantly peace. I would recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in Indian Spirituality or even to someone who knows nothing about it. The next Kumbh Mela at Prayag is in 2013. I'll be saving my pennies.

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