Shortcut to Nirvana

May, 2005, Documentary

Short Cut To Nirvana

Much has been said and written about the unexpectedly large crowds that descended on The Eternal City to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. While those numbers were indeed impressive, they pale in comparison with the attendance records set every dozen years at the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela, which drew an estimated 20 million + when last held in 2003.

Conducted, (on a rotating basis) at three different sites of special significance in the Hindu tradition, Kumbh Mela provides an opportunity for the faithful to renew their spiritual commitments while allowing observers the opportunity of experiencing the dazzling array of diversity to be found in one of the world's great religions. The perfect opportunity to produce a thoughtful documentary on a theology so poorly understood in the West, is it not? Alas, filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day provide a curiously empty effort, equal parts naïve sentimentality and excerpts from Ripley's Believe It or Not.  The movie examines without explaining, intrudes without purpose and concludes without real understanding.

Instead of examining the multiplicity of divine expressions embedded in Hinduism’s ancient belief system, the camera follows policemen whipping crowds into line, shows naked believers rushing to the waters of the Ganges and a Hindu woman being buried for three days at the bottom of a specially designed pit in order to contemplate amidst the chaos. Listening to a self-proclaimed African holy man spout banalities or watching the male members of one sect wrap their penises around walking sticks not only fails to do justice to the sophistication of Hindu cosmology, it reduces this richly detailed view of reality to little more than freak show status. At a time when Western audiences, (especially those in the United States) exhibit a painfully small and dangerously suspicious grasp of the far more accessible tenants of Islam, this introduction to Hinduism is shamefully deficient in every way.

It's not that the producers of Shortcut are deliberately condescending; in many ways that would be much easier to stomach; instead, the film follows a collection of young people from the U.S. who descend on this uniquely Asian festival in search of "enlightenment". They're dreadfully earnest and equally gullible, which allows a smarmy English-speaking Hindu to take them--and the filmmakers--through a series of interviews with the leaders of the various groups in attendance, many of whom enjoy the worshipful support of believers who've had little formal education or training in the tenants of their faith. The result is a talking-head exercise that produces analysis as shallow as it is unconvincing.  

A traveler to India can’t help but be impressed with the importance of Hinduism in that enormously important country's national life; this examination of one event in that tradition is a travesty. 

The Verdict? Bad news for all concerned, especially the audience

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