Faith Connections: IFFLA Review
Diverse styles of worship form a fluid backdrop for the world’s largest religious festival.
Widely considered the largest human gathering of any type, the Kumbh Mela is a both a Hindu pilgrimage and an extended ritual celebration that takes place every three years in a 12-year cycle at a rotating series of four disparate Ganges riverside sites in India. Since it's believed to be the most sacred of Hinduism’s pilgrimages, at the behest of his father, filmmaker Pan Nalin attended the 2013 event at Allahabad -- along with approximately 100 million other devotees -- near the confluence of the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers.
With films like Samsara and Valley of Flowers, independent Indian filmmaker Nalin has established a distinct worldview in synch with the country’s diverse religious and cultural traditions. Here, his personal experience layers an additional perspective into the documentary, which should attract both the faithful and the curious upon theatrical release from Kino Lorber later this year, following pickups in multiple territories worldwide.
Although Nalin’s charge was to collect some holy river water to bring back to his father, his agenda expands significantly upon arrival at the ritual site on the mud flats adjacent to the rivers. Hundreds of encampments and thousands of celebrants representing various religious associations, charitable organizations and the inevitable state security apparatus blanket the site.
At one police post, Nalin meets Kishan, a ten-year-old boy essentially surviving as a street kid during the festival, who says his parents are dead but provides few details about his hometown or how he arrived at the festival. By dint of wit and wheedling, he somehow endears himself to the cops, who make sure he’s decently fed and doesn’t go too far astray, although they don’t seem at all interested in reuniting him with any surviving family.
Among a gathering of the faithful, Nalin encounters Hathayogi Baba, a holy man who’s adopted another abandoned young boy. This child is only a toddler, however, who is constantly testing the elderly sage’s patience and ability to keep up. Everyone from government child-welfare officers to his own fellow ascetics questions his motivations and endurance, but the yogi remains devoted to the child night and day.
The melee of riverside worshippers proves exhilarating for some but overwhelming for others, particularly those who lose track of friends and relations in the crowds. One extended family searches unsuccessfully for their missing young son, rebuffed by both the authorities and their fellow congregants, who don’t show much concern for their all-too-common dilemma as they scour the riverbank encampments from one end to the other looking for their lost child.
As Nalin’s camera wends its way through the endless crowds of pilgrims, it becomes clear how hard it is to navigate through the masses to follow these anecdotes of struggle, devotion and suffering. Although the film’s subjects sometimes seem rather randomly selected, perhaps that’s fitting – the Kumbh Mela represents an unrivaled confluence of Indians from all parts of the country and walks of life who are jammed together for days and weeks on end during the festival. Despite the fervent devotion on display, with pilgrims praying and bathing in the holy Ganges river almost around the clock, Nalin doesn’t venture to disclose details concerning his own beliefs, regardless of the personal mission that brought him to the celebration.
Considering the complexity of managing a production in constantly shifting circumstances almost exclusively outdoors in highly unpredictable conditions, Nalin and cinematographers Anuj Dhawan and Swapnil Sonawane do an admirable job profiling the experiences of their selected subjects, although some trimming of the 115-minute runtime would help tighten the narrative focus.
Venue: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Production companies: Cite Films, Jungle Book Entertainment, Virginie Films
Director-writer: Pan Nalin
Producers: Raphael Berdugo, Gaurav Dhingra, Pan Nalin, Virginie Lacombe
Directors of photography: Anuj Dhawan, Swapnil Sonawane, Pan Nalin
Music: Cyril Morin
Editors: Shreyas Baltangdy, Julie Delord
Not rated, 115 minutes