Kumbh Mela is a sprawling religious event that happens once every three years at one of four different locations around the Earth. It is the world's largest gathering for Hindu pilgrims, estimated to be around 100 million of them. Director Pan Nalin visited Kumbh Mela and within the millions of people managed to collect stories that make up this documentary exploring faith and devotion.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Can 100 million people make up any sort of microcosm? It would seem too large a number, a country unto itself. Except when it comes to India, that is, whose Kumbh Mela ritual, which brings tens of millions of Hindus together every three years, is the subject of Faith Connections. The most recent event, on the Ganges, was the site of what is believed to be the largest single-day gathering of humans in history. Over its 55 days, Kumbh Mela attracts between 80 and 100 million pilgrims seeking a karma-boosting 'holy dip". From these faithful masses, Faith Connections sculpts an absorbing cross-section of modern India.
sculpts an absorbing cross-section of modern India
Samsara director Pan Nalin opens the film with his intention to attend Kumbh Mela and bring his father back both some holy water and some stories. From there he slips away, and the story is left to a steady flow of richly photographed, superbly edited imagery. The largest contrast at Kumbh Mela, we learn, is between those Indians who live in the world and those who have renounced the world. The latter are the Sandhu, a Hindu clan with many sects, some less concerned with clothing than others. Among the Sandhu is Yogi Baba, a sinewy guru usually found either praying with his feet behind his head or toking with a smile on his spectacularly bearded face. Yogi Baba has adopted a small child, found abandoned; he teaches the boy how to eat, how to pray, and how to pose. 'I renounced the world," he cries, pointing to the boy he adores, 'but the world I renounced has come back to me."
Lost children become a motif of Faith Connections, which picks up stories like batons passed from body to moving body at Kumbh Mela. A few weeks into the festivities, 135,000 people have been reported missing (all the numbers are bigger in India), many of that number children at risk of being trafficked for a few hundred dollars. Nalin tails several distraught parents as they travel from camp to tented encampment; one three-year-old boy is missing for over a week. Our faith in Nalin grows as the rhythm and purpose of his intricate narrative threading begins to take shape. His survey of Kumbh Mela presents with grace and a lack of pretense the logic that is India’s own—where, for instance, the chaos that results in massive numbers of missing children becomes an opportunity for God’s work to be done.
Though 10-year-old Kishan appears lost, he has run away from home, and prowls the Kumbh Mela like a swaggering tramp, befriending all he meets. 'It seems you’ve seen too many movies," one bemused man tells Kishan, who has just announced his plans to become a mafia don. 'Not movies," Kishan replies darkly, 'I’ve seen reality." The future of this ancient custom appears secure; the future of India’s next generation of children much less so.
Nalin captures the dissonance between a naked, mud-covered Sandhu performing tricks with his penis and the omnipresence of smartphones at this deeply tribal event. Some men talk of adapting, others of withdrawing. (It should be noted it is strictly men doing the talking: the only women depicted in Faith Connections are those mothers crying for their children.) But it would appear a decision must be made. The irresistible Kishan, found in an incredible coincidence by his father, travels back to his home village, where the filmmaker tracks him down using only Kishan’s last name and the assistance of strangers. India, you see, has its own logic. That logic, rooted in spiritualism and already alive in the headstrong Kishan, appears in Faith Connections to be India’s most valuable and most treacherous asset.