Somewhat lurid title notwithstanding, Paula Fouce’s “Naked in Ashes” is a respectful, illuminating appreciation of a few of the estimated 13 million yogis in India. Briskly assembled, yet aptly channeling its subjects’ air of close-to-God meditative bliss, the docu should appeal to Western New Agers and other seekers in limited theatrical, then home-format distribution. Following dates in Los Angeles and New York, pic opens in the San Francisco/Bay Area Dec. 2, with other single-screen arthouse bookings to follow.
Promo materials promise glimpse of a lifestyle “never seen on film,” though in fact several recent docus including “Short Cut to Nirvana” and “Ganges: River to Heaven” have covered much of the same terrain. But Fouce’s principal focus on about 20 individuals gives it a distinctive slant.
Usually living in extreme poverty, yogis, following a 5,000-year-old spiritual path, take on particular austerities that here include a guy who’s been standing upright 24/7 for 12 years, and another who attracted attention by pulling a fully loaded jeep with his privates. (He helpfully advises “This penis control trick is not for everyone.”) Pic’s benevolent outlook somehow manages to make even such bizarre behaviors understandable as one person’s path of liberation from our current Dark Age of materialism.
There are also yogis who take regular pilgrimages high into the Himalayas, walking naked in snow, risking death from exposure. But “Ashes” isn’t the “Mondo Cane” of Hinduism. Its diverse survey of yogic gurus and disciples more often conveys the serenity gained by renunciation of earthly desires via prayer, meditation, charitable works, yoga and so forth.
En route, we get passing explanations of holy-fire rituals, the third eye, and the cycle of reincarnation that mystics hope to transcend. There’s brief commentary on the impact of pollution and clear-cutting on sacred lands.
The progression of 14-year-old Santosh Giri from foundling to fully initiated yogi reborn under Shiv Raj Giri’s tutelage provides modest narrative impetus.
Though its amorphous structure makes the docu seem a bit rambling by the last reels — which focus on the massive, every-12th-year Kumbh Mela festival in Ujjain — pic for the most part it holds attention quite nicely. Humor is provided by the very occasional intrusion of modernity into these out-of-time lives, as when a cell phone rings in a bamboo hut.
Editing is astute, lensing often handsome, and music scoring very lively without being intrusive. Rather than using subtitles (which infrequently appear), pic utilizes numerous Indian-accented, English-language voiceover performers to translate interviewees.