"Short Cut to Nirvana" provides a colorful introduction to India's Kumbh Mela, a sacred gathering held once every 12 years. Event constitutes the single largest gathering in history. Casual, engaging docu doesn't attempt a Hinduism 101 lesson, instead going for an impressionistic mix of on-the-fly spectacle and human interest.

Short Cut to Nirvana” provides a colorful introduction to India’s Kumbh Mela, a sacred gathering held once every 12 years. Although surprisingly little known in the West, event constitutes the single largest gathering in history. (Attendance estimates for 2001′s event range from 30 million to 70 million). Casual, engaging docu doesn’t attempt a Hinduism 101 lesson, instead going for an impressionistic mix of on-the-fly spectacle and human interest. It’s traveling city to city via repertory cinema dates; New Age types and other seekers should make it a popular home-format item later on.

Rooted in ancient mythology, and rotating among four cities along the Ganges, the fete certainly dates back to the seventh century A.D. The Maha Kumbh Mela, coinciding with a particular alignment of the planets, occurs only every 144 years, outside city of Allahabad. It is this ’01 event that co-helmers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day filmed for “Short Cut” (title derives from notion that attendance here is “equal to a thousand regular pilgrimages”).

Without making pic too first-person, filmmakers filter experience to an extent through several visitors, most notably American couple Justin Davis and Dyan Summers, who acquire a valuable guide in very camera-ready young monk Swami Krishnanand. He also provides unresolved but amusing personal drama by falling slavishly in love with the punky, shock-blonde American woman — an awkward situation neither she, her apparent boyfriend, nor the filmmakers directly address.

Helmers focus instead on the “constant bombardment of the senses” and the myriad individual spiritual paths at the fete. Among the stranger gurus shown are a man who’s held one arm skyward for years, awaiting samadhi (a state of deep meditative rapture). Another, impervious to pain, sits on nails while suspended over a searing fire. (We will spare details of the sect that tightly binds their penises.)

Visiting spiritual leaders include Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama (here to encourage harmony among all global faiths), a Tanzanian mystic with an enormously disc-stretched underlip, and a Japanese nun “buried” in a pit for three days’ samadhi practice.

There’s a certain carnival aura to such showy demonstrations of faith; indeed, at night the vast temporary pilgrims’ tent city resembles a fairground of glitzy colored lights. Summers (among others) opines these flashier aspects impress her less than attendees who simply radiate a quiet, selfless devotion. But pic doesn’t judge, maintaining playful but uncondescending good humor and attentiveness to the joy most pilgrims evidently feel.

Aside from the beaming faces, ecstasy doesn’t translate very much in visual terms — the constant dust, smoke, human and material clutter impede poetic imagery in the hand-held DV lensing. (Nor does pic shrink from the event’s more unhygienic aspects, or its occasionally heavy-handed police presence.)

“Short Cut” is often reminiscent of the docus about the far smaller annual U.S. Burning Man festival. That’s underlined by a soundtrack heavy on world-beat dance music, perhaps too aggressively Western in flavor.

Still, overall tenor amplifies Kumbh Mela’s own atmosphere of tolerance, generosity, and earnest spiritual questing. Helmers include several gurus commenting on the West’s wrongheaded material gain emphasis, but refrain from making that the pic’s mantra.

Some heavily accented English (as well as Hindi) dialogue is subtitle-translated. Tech aspects are adequate in 35mm transfer.

Short Cut To Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

Production

A Sundial Prods. and Mela Films presentation. Produced by Maurizio Benazzo, Nick Day. Directed by Maurizio Benazzo, Nick Day.

Crew

Camera (color, mini-DV to 35mm), Benazzo; additional camera, Day, Vanessa Ramos; editor, Day; music, Bob Muller; sound (Dolby Digital), Benazzo, Day. Reviewed at Variety Club Screening Room, San Francisco, Dec. 2, 2004. English, Hindi dialogue. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Swami Krishnanand, Dyan Summers, Jasper Johal, Justin Davis, Vanessa Ramos, Pilot Baaba, Bharti Urdvahu, the Dalai Lama, Ramanand Puri, Kali Baaba, Devrahaha Hans Baba.

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