It’s not surprising that the most enchanting and inscrutable country on earth – India - would produce a sub-culture of thirteen million ascetics who smear themselves with the ashes of the dead, eschew material wealth and clothing, and adopt austere practices that push their physical limits in the service of washing away the sins of the world. One yogi has been holding his arm up for several years; another meditates for days without eating or taking a bathroom break. One says he doesn’t eat anything but fruit.
Religion pervades every aspect of Indian life; it’s where Buddha was enlightened and Gandhi became a spiritual leader, and where strict Jains wear masks and sweep the street before they walk so as not to inadvertently kill a living being.
When I spent three months in India, I always wanted to know more about the sadhus I’d see walking around everywhere. I never could find out much more than the fact that they give up all of their possessions and wander from place to place receiving alms. “Naked in Ashes,” directed by Paula Fouce, follows several yogis in their daily lives that leads up to the time that they attend the Kubh Mehla, the biggest religious festival that occurs every twelve years. They also track a young boy, Santosh Giri, who was lost at the age of 11 at a religious festival and met a yogi, Shiv Raj Giri and decided to stay with him. Three years later the boy is still with his guru and we see his induction ceremony. The interviews are dubbed with English speaking voices.
The problem with “Naked in Ashes” is that Fouce is too enamored with the yogis to see them objectively. I like documentaries that let the audience decide how they think about something, but the treatment in this film is so superficial that by the end we don’t know too much more than we did in the beginning. The yogis are idealized and kept at a distance.
The filmmakers left so many questions unanswered. The ironies were rarely noticed, like when the yogis are discussing their austere practices while one is taking a long drag from a cigarette. There is never any mention about how the eleven year-old boy’s parents may have felt about him disappearing forever. And even though we follow the yogis over several months, we still don’t go too much deeper than the glimpse we saw in another documentary that came out this year about the Kubh Mehla festival. Most of all, I didn’t know why the issue of mental illness wasn’t broached, especially the fascinating phenomenon of a pervasive pathology of an era, like hysteria in women during Freud’s time. How do the carnival tricks like walking on hot coals or standing on one leg help anyone?
To be fair, my friend Karen liked the film a lot more than I did. She focused more on the beauty of the practice. I told her that part of my disappointment in the film was that the yogis were not that compelling. It seemed to me like the epitome of vanity when they donned eyeliner for the religious festival. They are supposed to be virtuous and self-less, and some of them seemed to thrive on attention for the carnival tricks; they don’t even have a practice of service to others. What do they contribute to society? Is it simply the Indian culture’s version of eccentricity?
Karen said I should call my film review “Shiftless Sadhus.”
In San Francisco, this is Joan Widdifield for Movie Magazine.
© 2005 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 11/30/05
Naked in Ashes
2005 108 minutes