Documentary More than Holy Rivers

Hatha Yogi Baba with his child at the Ganga
Hatha Yogi Baba with his child at the Ganga | Photo: © 2013 Cité Films – Jungle Book Entertainment – Virginie Films

It is no surprise that Pan Nalin, who explored spiritual pursuits and cultural traditions in the feature film Samsara (2001) and the documentary Ayurveda: Art of Being (2001), embarked upon the 55-days' stay at the mass Hindu pilgrimage Kumbh Mela. 

It is the biggest religious festival in the world which is visited by hundreds of millions of Hindus every three years in a 12-year cycle. The pilgrims gather to bathe in the holy Ganges riverside, where sins can be washed away, and perform spiritual rituals.

Nalin mainly films in Allahabad near the merging of Ganges and Yamuna rivers and captures spectacular images of pilgrimage practices, colourful ornaments, and painted human and elephant bodies. In an extremely humanistic way, some individual faces and bodies, whose voices are usually drowned among the crowd, become the centre of the documentary. We see the nomadic boy Kishan Tiwari, who claims to be an orphan, becoming the best tour guide around his daily routine in the mela. This prematurely street-smart and self-fending boy befriends two policemen, one tricyclist, several worshippers and fellow vagabonds, who feed and play with him without questioning his way of living. While counting his meagre possessions and recounting his vision of becoming a mafia boss to hit and kill, Kishan Tiwari unknowingly displays a melancholy blending between boyishness and hidden hatred towards the world. In parallel, there is another homeless boy who was adopted and loved by the Hatha yogi Baba, despite the child-welfare officials' constant attempt to take the child away. At the other side of the mela, we see families at the lost and found centre desperately and cluelessly looking for their lost loved ones in the crowd.
Interchanging between overhead birds-eye-shots of the masses, close-ups of human faces, and medium shots of tableaux vivants of different groups of pilgrims, it is not only about the mela, the holy river, but also about the living, struggling and suffering of all the beings – a network of families, friends, or completely unrelated individuals whose paths cross. It is where spirituality, human flesh, belief, and meditation meet. As the observational camera navigates through the mass, the frame is filled, colours variegated, and movement somewhat hectic. Bathing in orange-brown light, Ganges and sand on the riverbank also shine with the same colour. In Nalin's celebration of the mass and the individual, minuscule human bodies against grandiosity of the river compose sublime beauty of multiplicity.