As a Mumbaikar who abhors religion, my imagination of the Kumbh was restricted to old Hindi films. Most of these films had a pair of siblings who inevitably got separated at the mammoth Mela, only to be reunited several years later, in a classic twist of fate. This plotline was used and abused to such an extent that it became a comical trope in everyday conversations. When you couldn’t spot a friend in a crowd, you joked about them getting lost at the Kumbh.
As I grew older, my imagination of the Kumbh was transformed by images of the mysterious Naga Babas and the not-so-mysterious herbs they smoke. Filmmaker Pawan Shrivastava makes clever use of compelling visuals, featuring these disrobed ascetics, as an entry point into the holy hullabaloo. His debut documentary film, Kumbh The Other Story, opens with the Babas getting ready to take a dip in the Ganga on Mouni Amavasya (silent no moon day). Covered in ash and with dreadlocks adorning their face, it’s hard to take your eyes off them.
The film is divided into three parts: prologue, the other story and epilogue. It runs slightly longer with a screen time of 91 minutes, more than one would have liked, but it keeps you hooked. The music and the cinematography of the film complement the mood of the film beautifully.
In a particularly dark and witty moment in the film, a boatman opines while looking at the camera that the scaled-up “Mela is also an advertisement for Modi ji”. Shrivastava agrees, “Kumbh Mela of 2019 was being strategically used by the BJP for electoral gains. No wonder its budget was hiked threefold. This is the reason why I decided to show the other side of the Kumbh.”
Apart from the Babas, Hindu devotees congregate in Prayagraj (erstwhile Allahabad) every 4 years. Why? To take a dip in the Ganga. Why? To get rid of all their sins. Or so it is believed.
No wonder there were posters of the BJP plastered everywhere. All that footfall and so many eyeballs, how can one let it go to waste. If only the administration had bettered living conditions on the ground instead of building castles in the air.
The filmmaker highlights three vulnerable groups in his documentary: the Safai Karamcharis (sanitation workers) who talk about not being paid enough and the long working hours they have to endure to make minimum wage; the common people who haven’t been able to take a dip in the Ganga because of how crowded and inaccessible the Mela has become; and the Kinnar Akhada (a religious monastery with a guru-shishya, or teacher-disciple, tradition) headed by activist, media personality and trans woman, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi.
“With time, the face of this fair has changed. Now, it has just become an event where the focus is to attract tourists and to influence the Hindu voter, simultaneously. Providing facilities to a common devotee and fair wages to the workers are not the priorities anymore,” laments the filmmaker.
The Kinnar Akhada’s fight is a fight for acceptance and inclusion. I may not agree with their politics but wanted to understand their purpose. As a trans person, I wanted to find out why Shrivastava thought it was important to spotlight the said Akhada.
“Laxmi Naryan Tripathi had important things to say about gender, which is normally not found in the discourse of a religious event. She was the most visible face of transgender rights at the fair. For me, a Mahamandaleshwar (highest level of traditional, Hindu, spiritual guardianship) talking so strongly and bringing the discourse of trans rights in the mainstream was worth highlighting.”
A paltry number out of the thousands of sanitation workers contracted for the Mela organised a strike to improve their working conditions but to no end. Those who are tasked with keeping the Mela, and its numerous toilets, clean, don’t have access to basic, adequate safety gear. An old man in the film goes on at length about how he and others like him are forced to live in squalid conditions and struggle to walk kilometres to get to the Sangam ghat.
Shrivastava admitted that shooting in an uber-crowded space, where no transportation was available within the Mela premises, was a big challenge. I am glad that the filmmaker and his team braved the challenges of making such an impactful film that has forever challenged Kumbh’s imagination for me. It is a film that asks several important questions about society and the government. Quid pro kyun?