The laying on of hands has long been central to healing; in Ayurveda, a 2000-year-old holistic health care system that originated in India, physicians diagnose their patients’ conditions by manipulating the flesh and bones of the hand. They speak of bio-energies, of principles representing the elements—Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space—and of “stones favorable to the planet Saturn.” And they “cure” many cancers.
A lot of Pan Nalin’s Ayurveda: The Art of Being (Kino, opens July 17 at Cinema Village) documents the preparation of medicines through painstaking processes of gathering, heating, and grinding natural materials with a mortar and pestle. We watch the assembly line on which the elixirs are packaged, and are told that “desire is the root cause of all evils.” At a noted practitioner’s spread in India, a woman is covered with special mud by two technicians working at once, and wrapped like a tamale. A man is slathered with a different slurry; when it dries and is cracked off, a doctor diagnoses him based on changes in his skin. A substance is buried in cow dung and burned for 14 hours; ground into powder, it’s fed to the sick.
Ayurveda, alas, unspools like a highbrow, low-key, 102-minute infomercial, blending entrepreneurial zeal with the testimony of satisfied customers. Many of the patients don’t actually pay for the services of the Ayurvedic physicians (a donation box sits alongside a long line of afflicted people, who are calmly but brusquely diagnosed and handed herbal remedies). Most of the clients are South Asians and some still in diapers; over and over the film hammers home the efficacy of the ancient healing practices. In the final moments, American doctor Scott Gerson and local yoga teacher Sharon Gannon make brief appearances; he confirms the Indian wisdom and she leads a class. For the most part, though, Ayurveda speaks in subtitled Asian cadences to an affluent international audience primed to believe.