Unusual docu takes a spiritual bent, combining human-interest saga with colorful interpretive touches for a travelogue — up the Ganges River to the lower Himalayas — that most auds will connect with on several levels. Some arthouse play is indicated, followed by much air action, starting with the Eurowebs that made it.
This Finnish-German project, in Hindi with English subtitles and chapter headers, follows an Indian pilgrim on his Ganga Yatra, a journey up the Ganges. Jamana Lal isn’t a typical pilgrim: Due to congenital defects (which look Thalidomide-induced), he has stumps instead of legs, and his back is shaped like a pretzel. Still, the 35-year-old seeker has a handsome face and a strong emotional presence — he even gets possessed by river spirits. Plus, he manages some arduous tasks on the way to bring his recently deceased mother’s ashes to the source of the holy river.
Jamana, who narrates “Atman” (Sanskrit for “soul”), starts his 4,500-mile trek from a southern village to northern mountain and back again, with his brother Gisu and the brother’s large family along for the trip, which happens on foot, bus and various means of water transport. Eventually, without warning, Gisu’s clan quits the trip and disappears without even leaving a note. By then, though, Jamana has been lucky enough to meet the plain, kindhearted Shanta (with two kids of her own), who wants to finish the journey with him.
Along the way, they explore the sights and sounds of various riverside towns set up to accommodate pilgrims. Helmer Pirjo Honkasalo’s footage of travelers caught up in religious fervor is breathtakingly colorful, and sometimes more than that, as when a parade of holy men — some of whom look extremely stoned — do very strange things to their body parts.
The material feels a little massaged at times, as in the storytelling dance numbers that crop up repeatedly, and a little threadbare at others. Overall, though, this solidly lensed mix (shot by the helmer herself) of the exotic and the mundane — with funeral pyres lighting the night sky and pilgrims getting ritual haircuts — puts the viewer on the journey in ways most religious docus only hint at. Judging from Vancouver response (three sold-out shows), “Atman” is sure to have several lives.