Marutirtha Hinglaj is a self-conscious and often sentimental portrait of a group of pilgrims headed on a long journey through the desert to reach a goddess's shrine at Hinglaj (beginning from Karachi, Balochistan) and the nearby volcanic shrine of Baba Chandrakoot. Both holy sites promise that a pilgrim can be washed of all his sin provided that (a) he work out his penance through the harsh desert journey, and (b) that he confesses his sins truthfully upon reaching the first shrine.
As befitting such religious journey stories (The Canterbury Tales might come to mind), the would-be devotees are a rag-tag bunch, from many different walks of life and castes; of both Muslim and Hindu faiths. Along the way, the larger group rescues two dying travelers (Uttam Kumar and Sabitri Chatterjee), who claim to have been trying to catch up and make the pilgrimage themselves. It is clear from the flavorful euphemisms and shocked behavior that the group does not consider these two to be respectable company. However, they are in need, and the kind ascetic/monk, if not the sour pandit, convince the rest that the right thing can only be to take them along and care for their safety.
Despite the support of the compassionate monk and passionate appeals from Pirimal, Kunti almost immediately shuns the company of her beloved, telling him she has taken a vow of asceticism and feels that their sufferings are a direct result of their "sinful" love. This is too much for Pirimal, who starts to experience worse and worse bouts of [filmi] madness. While hilarious on an Uttam Kumar fandom level, this proves devastating during the journey's touch and go survival scenarios. More and more, the conscience of the group is tested, as they are forced to choose between the well-being of the majority, and the safety of struggling individuals.
Beyond being entertained, I was moved by this film. It may be a bit dated, but there's so much to think about here, that I will probably be dwelling on this story for some time. As it was based on a real life-inspired travelogue by Bengali author Kalikananda Abhadut, AND shot in the desert, it hangs on urgent questions of life and death. The parallel moral journey is thus impossible to dismiss. When belief and devotion play out in extreme survival scenarios, it seems important to take them seriously.
For some reason, I've never considered the ingenious nature of the pilgrim narrative in its ability to be a microcosm of the issues of society as a whole. Perhaps such a religious journey is more likely to be taken by people of middle to lower financial status, but beyond that, you can pretty much include any "caste" of characters you like ... any social problem ... any moral dilemma.
For example ... the same ascetic who vouches for the protection of the oft pagol Kailash also acts as a confessor to some of the travelers, which leads to some shocking revelations, such as infanticide ... a sin one of the pilgrims hopes is not too big for the goddess or Baba Chandrakoot to cleanse. Though horrifying, it seemed to me a brave topic to bring up and condemn--considering that the practice is still common in many places--but I've never heard it talked about it in an Indian film before in a serious way. Cackling masala villains often try to do away with the infant son of their enemy, but this film tackles the baser motivations of murder ... a man *simply* wanted to preserve or raise a child from his own lineage, rather than his brother's, and is haunted by this choice for the rest of his life.
The central lovers act out these questions on a very personal stage. In the height of Kunti's emotional self-flagellation, Pirimal tells her that they don't need to repent, as she believes. Instead, he says, "Wrong! They've taught you the wrong things...How can love be a sin?"
Perhaps the film's most morbid moment best sums up its symbolic punch. When the pandit falls ill and unable to walk during the longest stretch between wells, a barely sane Pirimal (someone the pandit did nothing but shun) offers to carry him through the night to save his life. But at some point, the priest dies, and in his exhaustion and determination, Pirimal does not realize. The pandit's post-mortem grip nearly chokes Pirimal to death.
Ultimately, "sin" and "holiness" are portrayed as gray areas. The much hoped-for monastery that the three would-be monks/nuns are directed towards turns out to be a desert mirage. The resident Brahmin is clearly the least loving and most expendable person in the group of pilgrims. The super-spiritual guide who seemed to be in charge of all the important pilgrimage rituals [if he had an official title, I didn't catch it], and performs them with a terrifying perfection, is the first to raise arms against a pilgrim "refusing" to confess at the first shrine. Once again, it is the ascetic who stays his hand.