ayurveda: the art of being (2002)


director: pan nalin

This documentary about traditional Indian naturopathic medicine plays more like a recruiting film, a cinematic pep talk for New Age health devotees. A degree in medical science is probably more useful in reviewing this film than any background in film, since the core of Pan Nalinís Ayurveda: The Art of Being is a celebration of a practice thatís literally a life and death matter for a billion people.

The film begins with a sun-drenched field, where a wizened local prays briefly before collecting wild plants from a field - the sort of scenario thatís clearly selling a much-cherished concept of respect for nature. Weíre taken to the office of Brahmanand Swamigal, a practitioner with a Ph.D. whoís to be our primary guide, and who gently but constantly disparages conventional, or ďallopathicĒ medicine for ďtreating diseases, not peopleĒ, and working for the profit principle.

Itís hard to argue against what are presented as inarguable virtues such as these, and this is the high ground Nalinís film works from, positing nature against cities and modernity, excess against sacred austerity. Weíre taken from India to Greece to New York City in a quest to show the universality of Ayurvedic practice, from long line-ups outside a free clinic in a dusty village to clean, clinical consulting rooms.

Soothing words are said about the compatibility of Ayurvedic medicine with modern scientific practice, and evidence carefully presented about the sound basis of plants and minerals as curative agents. A lame toddler is shown being treated with herb infusions, and the climax of the film is the little girlís first vigorous steps. We are meant, of course, to take as truth the filmís insinuation that the child had never walked before.

And thatís the dreadful flaw at the heart of the film - without seeing the research, the context of the illnesses and treatments, or being witness to a verifiably successful treatment, so much is meant to be taken on faith. At one point, a guru despairs that the modern world is addicted to quick fixes, but itís hard not to see the regimen of brusque massages, and the copious herb, bark and mineral prescriptions being dispensed, as the quickest - and most comforting - sort of palliatives for people in pain.