Pankaj Purohit was barely 15 when he first met an Aghori. He was playing cricket outside their house in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh, when he was summoned inside by his father. A Brahmin family with orthodox beliefs, it was a momentous occasion for his parents who wanted their son to be blessed by the “holy man” paying them a visit.
The man’s appearance — stained teeth and ash-laden beard with dirt all over him — made a strange, vivid impact on Purohit’s mind. The encounter raised a question in his mind: “Why are such men, who eat human flesh, considered to be holy?” It is this thought that drove Purohit, now 36, to make his first feature-length documentary film, Belly of the Tantra. The film will have its India premiere today at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai.
Belly of the Tantra looks into the edgy and mystical lives of Aghoris, the “ancient and eccentric sect of Hinduism” known to live on cremation grounds along the Ganges. The Aghoris have “sparked much controversy and significant taboo” with their radical religious practice from worshipping the vagina and eating the flesh of dead humans to drinking blood, some of which Purohit and his producer, Babita Modgil, experienced while shooting the film. The two had to blend in with the Aghoris and film them gonzo-style, mostly without their knowledge, as is evident from the sometimes jerky, low-light and odd-angle shots.
“In order to be with them, you have to be one of them. Once, we were at Tarapith in West Bengal sitting with an Aghori along with his followers at 2 am. He brought a half-broken human skull, which they use as a container. In it, there was urine mixed with liquor, which was then offered as prasad to his followers. We had no choice but to drink it too,” says Purohit, who has been interested in spirituality, various cults and religions from a young age. He took to Christianity while studying in the US and is currently into Buddhism.
The Aghoris, who seek nirvana through extreme rituals, fascinated him. Purohit got to observe them closely while studying Hindustani classical music in Varanasi when he would spend hours with them having conversations about spirituality. He co-wrote a psychological thriller about a human flesh eater, who falls in love with an anthropology student from abroad. This he developed into a feature film script and wanted Irrfan to play the lead. When it didn’t materialise, he moved on to make this documentary in 2011.
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Purohit’s film doesn’t take a moral stand on the Aghoris and instead leads us to Varanasi, Tarapith, Ujjain, Guwahati and Nepal, giving us a rare glimpse into their world, “challenging notions of faith and the limits to which one can go”. Full of striking stories and visuals, the film, which was completed in 2012, didn’t get a screening in India as the Censor Board did not give a clearance following an objection by Animal Welfare Board of India.
“The Censor Board wanted visuals of frontal nudity and animal killings removed. I was firm about not letting the visuals go,” says Purohit, who studied direction at the University of California. Belly of the Tantra has done the rounds of foreign film festivals, including being the official selection in IFF Berlin (Babylon) and Cine-Rebis, London.
Apart from its NCPA screening today, the uncut version of the film is likely to be shown at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi next month. However, Purohit is also in talks with PVR about a “more moderate” version for a wider release.