Short Cut to Nirvana is a swirl of color, an exotic procession of sights and sounds, of pilgrims, swamis, gurus, modern snake-oil salesmen and tourists: It's about the world's largest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad, India. For 12 days, up to 70 million people arrive at the "mela" held every 12 years in this city (one of four that hosts Kumbh Melas) on auspicious days in the planetary calendar. The faithful believe that a pilgrimage to Allahabad and participation in the festival's ritual bathing days, in the watery nexus of three sacred rivers, frees the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It's literally the short cut to Nirvana.

The documentary filmmaking team of Maurizio Benazzo, a polyglot Italian journalist and actor, and Nick Day, a British editor and screenwriter, wisely present this vertiginous event through the eyes of an insider, an English-speaking Hindu monk, Swami Krishnanand, as well as four outsiders: three Westerners, and Jasper, an Indian now living in the West who has chosen the occasion to return to his homeland. This coterie of "characters" allows the viewer a range of perspectives and a brief but revelatory peek at Hindu beliefs. Swami Krishnanand explains the tenets and rituals of the holy men and women at the mela with refreshingly little pedantry and a compelling and infectious sense of reverence and wonder. He befriends two of the Westerners, so we see him in their company as a tour guide, but the filmmakers also interview the swami throughout the mela, as they do Jasper and the Westerners.

The structure of the documentary is ingenious and obviously the work of filmmakers who are also experienced travelers: Short Cut to Nirvana walks us through the tent city that grows around the Kumbh Mela, sometimes not stopping to explain what we're seeing, but judiciously pausing at the tents of respected gurus or particularly charismatic or downright wacky gurus, just as a newcomer might. There is the highly regarded Kela Devi (Keiko Aikawa), for instance, who buries herself in the ground for a four-day meditation, and the storied gurus who sit on a bed of nails or twist their penises around a rod. Interviews with the swami and the "outsiders," intercut with these sequences, provide the audience a chance to reflect on particularly outré devotional practices, and function as a kind of traveler's midday coffee break and reality check.

In the humanitarian spirit of this ancient gathering-devotees have attended melas for more than two millennia-the filmmakers maintain an impartial stance, giving equal weight to the quixotic and to the philosophical gurus, and to those whose followers express themselves through rapturous dance and music rather than spoken language. Both Swami Krishnanand and Jasper provide an intellectual fulcrum for understanding the mela, but ironically it is one of the Westerners, Vanessa Ramos (to whom the film is dedicated), who explains the scope of spiritual expression we see and hear in the film. She describes how she retreated from the throngs but drew strength from them: "The external gurus," Vanessa declares, "just point to your inner guru." Ramos, a young woman, died shortly after the film was completed. "She was a unique, bright spirit," Nick Day responded when asked about Vanessa, "and there was no doubt that we would dedicate our film to her."

In a subtitle at the end of the documentary, the filmmakers thank the 70 million pilgrims who attained Nirvana, but even if you're not a believer, it's hard to deny the presence of avatars at the Kumbh Mela, the Dalai Lama and Vanessa Ramos, just to name two. How serendipitous-or fateful-that Benazzo and Day captured them on film.
-Maria Garcia