The path to spiritual enlightenment is a vague, confounding one in Short Cut To Nirvana, an inept documentary about the Kumbh Mela festivities in India. Seemingly produced by the earnest dude in Birkenstocks who's been trying for years to get his friends into yoga, the film considers the world's largest spiritual pilgrimage from the unmistakable vantage of a well-meaning Westerner. It means to immerse viewers in the sensual overload of 70 million worshipers gathering between the Ganges and Yamuna River for this profoundly sacred Hindu event, but after the umpteenth shot of bearded Indians smiling beatifically, it's time to turn the home movies off. With only the barest context and narrative through-line, the film engages in a freeform exoticism that distances the audience from Hindu tradition by making it seem foreign and strange, totally inaccessible to the uninitiated.


Called by one attendee "a pilgrimage equal to a thousand regular pilgrimages" (read: even better than Burning Man), Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years in a dusty triangle near Allahabad, India. Tens of millions gather in a giant sprawl of tented communities where Hindus worship in traditional and sometimes unorthodox ways, yet everyone comes together in a peaceful chaos that culminates in a mass bathing in the cleansing river. Directors Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day take a wide-eyed walking tour through the various parades and ceremonies, occasionally pausing to get reactions from a few subjects, including a pair of Americans who are escorted by a young swami. This leads to numerous opportunities to deride empty Western values and traditions. At one point, a guru actually asserts that India is the place to be for true spiritual enlightenment, while places like Japan and America are better for electronics and wealth, respectively.

During its shapeless walking tour of the festivities, Short Cut To Nirvana can't help but wander off into a few fascinating detours, many of which make Kumbh Mela look like a giant carnival. There's a Japanese woman who buries herself underground for three days in order to communicate with God, a guru who sits on a throne of nails over burning coals, another who's held his right arm aloft for 20 years, and most disturbing of all, a man who wraps his genitals around a pole and allows people to stand on it. One of the Americans says she doesn't go for these more "gimmicky" forms of spirituality, but the film never provides any meaningful answers of its own.