Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Eastern Ecumenicalism: In Search of God

If you are taking a pilgrimage to find God, you might as well go someplace with nice scenery. Kavita Srinivasan would agree. Feeling a tad disillusioned with Hollywood (oh really, why?), she set out to reconnect with God or something big and meaningful on the idyllic island of Majuli in Northeast India. Her quest is documented in Rupam Sarmah’s In Search of God (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As Search opens, we see Srinivasan living the Sex in the City life with her shallow friends in distractingly staged scenes. Arriving on Majuli, she is met by the monk another more substantial friend arranged to serve as her spiritual Sherpa. Bizarrely, she starts flirting Baba Ram Saikia something fierce. Patiently, the young monk takes her on a tour of Majuli’s monasteries, shrines, and scenes of divine natural beauty, all of which makes quite an impression on the pilgrim.

She might be cute, but Srinivasan is not the most incisive interviewer, asking questions like: “what do you think about God and religion?” However, the holy men are evidently indulgent enough to craft some surprisingly insightful answers. Perhaps not unexpectedly, strong parallels emerge between the moral imperatives of Vaishnavist Hinduism and Christianity. In fact, when blessing Srinivasan’s pilgrimage, a Catholic priest on the mainland uses terms suggestive of a universal ecumenicalism.

At one point, Srinivasan expresses surprise at the notion religion is something created by God to unite people, reflexively repeating old clich├ęs about religion only leading only to division and strife. Yet, to her credit, she starts to wonder whether the opposite might be true—that a little more religious belief might lead to more peace. It certainly seems to be true on Majuli. Still, there are some issues she steadfastly refuses to plumb, such as the traditional gender roles reflected in the exclusively male sacred dances performed by her guide and his novices.

Search is well intentioned and could even provide some grist for future meditation. Frankly though, it would not kill Srinivasan to hit the books a little harder before her next documentary foray. With a sixty minute running time, it is definitely a bite sized sampler of primarily Hindu religious philosophy, but for those looking for the tour bus perspective, it might be serviceable. Whether it justifies the ticket price is another matter, but it does include the meaning of life as an extra added bonus when it opens this Friday (9/23) at New York’s IFC Center and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in greater Los Angeles.