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Midway through this credulous study of “the greatest pilgrimage in India,” filmmakers Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day offer a montage of astrologers, patent-medicine salesmen, and other avaricious quacks. They offer no comment, but that’s probably not because they believe that a fortune-telling parrot is as consequential as the Dalai Lama, the movie’s best-known personage. Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela is not cinéma vérité but cinéma blasé, the work of observers who can’t be bothered to evaluate the images they put onscreen; they toy with freeze-frames, iris effects, and raga-rock while neglecting narrative and analysis. An occasional voice-over provides some background on the Kumbh Mela festival, which occurs every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, but the narrative doesn’t distinguish between fact, assumption, and sheer blarney. Kumbh Mela boosters claim that 70 million people attend the event, which would make it more than four times larger than the world’s biggest metropolis—and without police, sanitary facilities, or a transit system aside from a handful of cows, camels, and elephants. Sometimes Benazzo and Day can’t help but demonstrate the gap between hype and fact: They watch when a grandmotherly Japanese swami who’s supposedly about to be “buried in a pit” is actually lowered into a trench that’s covered with a corrugated metal roof and then a thin layer of symbolic dirt. Are the nuances of such stunts lost in translation? Maybe, but most of the film’s characters, from an impressively pierced Tanzanian sadhu to the Dalai Lama himself, speak English. The principal talking heads are a few young Indian men (including one who now lives in Los Angeles) and three American spiritual tourists, the chattiest of whom is Dyan, a bleached-blond nurse from New York. She’s free to shop this New Age supermarket without passing judgment on the baloney she chooses not to buy, but as documentarians Benazzo and Day should show more discernment. Though Dyan says she’s not impressed by the gimmicky gurus, the filmmakers often seem to be—especially by the guy who can tie his penis around a stick.

—Mark Jenkins