Naked in Ashes is a documentary dedicated to the yogis, or Hindu mystics, of India. These holy men carry on a 5,000 year-old ascetic tradition, denying the needs of the body for the sake of spiritual enlightenment. Los Angeles-based filmmaker Paula Fouce has managed to tell their story with great sympathy and esteem, while at the same time ignoring, inflating, or simply (and most likely) misunderstanding the essence of her subject.
If you know nothing about Hindu mystics, you should see Naked in Ashes. After all, any movie about yogis is better than no movie about yogis. It has beautiful footage of the Himalayan lakes and mountainside. If you are familiar with this sect, you will quickly realize that the film suffers not so much from it’s misguided vision as from the great opportunity it misses. The staggering need for focus and improvement is evident from the opening credits on. Fouce gets closer to this infamously hermetic group than most Westerners will in a lifetime, yet fails to paint an accurate portrait of their mission and context within the greater subcontinent. The film misses some of the basic facts crucial to an understanding of the Hindu yogi’s spiritual life.
Some of those basic facts: In India, yogis are generally referred to as sadhus, from the sanskrit “to practice [meditation].” These men halt all pursuit of the three Hindu goals: kama (pleasure), artha (wealth), and dharma (duty), and instead seek moksha (liberation) through prayer and meditation. Naked, dreadlocked sadhus (such as the primary figure of the film, Shiv Raj Giri) are called Naga. Clothed sadhus with knives or swords are called Jata. Each deity in the Hindu pantheon inspires a different sort of sadhu.
While Fouce may well have done her homework, her film does not reflect it. Rather than use the industry-standard documentary subtitles, she dubs the yogis’ speech with Indian-accented English, and employs a hackneyed voice-over narration throughout the film. After following a loosely organized group of yogis to the Kumbh Mela, a holy festival along the banks of the Ganges, Fouce pulls her loose narrative full circle to Santosh Giri, the 14-year old sadhu-to-be who opens the film. One can see why Fouce chose this orphaned boy as the emotional center of the story; his wide-eyed obeisance to the new world around him is mirrored by her own.