Talk about a hands-on vocation: “Darshan (Embracing)” follows India’s world-renowned Amma — a short, chubby woman in her early 50s with a radiant smile — who, over three decades, has hugged more than 23 million people. Amma imparts comfort, serenity and unconditional love via touch, one person at a time, for 21 hours straight. But, far from inundating viewers with a litany of facts, Jan Kounen has his lilting camera drift through the colorful streets of India, recording Amma from a you-are-there vantage. Docu’s pace will be a little too meditative for many, but the rigorous, sinewy lensing will have hypnotic power on those so inclined.
Along with cheery, quasi-profound pronouncements by Amma herself, interview testimony from Amma’s disciples includes English and French-speaking Westerners, some of whom were skeptical originally but then were won over.
Footage shows Amma lick the pus from a leper’s sores — which is very effective shorthand for her saintly credentials. All possible allegations of quackdom appear to evaporate when Amma is shown accepting the Gandhi-King Prize for her work on behalf of peace and non-violence. The award’s previous recipients include Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela.
In 1979, Amma had a handful of followers and a temple in southern India that held 10 people. Today she is the irreplaceable fulcrum of a massive charitable enterprise that builds houses for the homeless, feeds the hungry, runs a hospital and an orphanage and does constant good works throughout India.
When Amma hugs people, the process resembles an incredibly affectionate book signing featuring a very popular author, whose readers feel free to kvetch to her about work, personal relationships and their health. With helpers keeping the crowds moving, long lines of humans are effectively “signed” by an attentive and apparently tireless Amma.
With this classily lensed venture, Kounennow has two docus under his belt about the mysterious reaches of alternative spiritual practices. “Other Worlds” (2004) documents the director’s own extensive use of ritual hallucinogens under the guidance of a shaman.
Amma’s gifts can’t be explained but docu proves that 23 million people can’t be wrong.