*With no new Hindi movies in theaters this week, I’m using the occasion to review an American documentary filmed in India. The Highest Pass opens in Los Angeles on April 27, 2012.
Adam Schomer, the affable guy whose quest for meaning is at the heart of The Highest Pass, says early in the film: “Since I was a kid, I’ve been wanting a guru: a wise teacher. I think we all want that.” This is a movie for people who agree with that statement. I imagine such spiritual seekers will find the documentary inspiring.
But not everyone wants a guru. As someone who’s at peace with my place in the cosmos and enjoys my life the way it is, I find it hard to relate to The Highest Pass. The self-help lingo — like “connecting” and “shedding a layer” — that Adam and his companions use adds a grating soundtrack to an otherwise lovely travelogue of a motorcycle ride through the Indian Himalayas.
The scenery is breathtaking. Whether passing through picturesque towns like Shimla (a locale featured in many Bollywood movies, such as 2011 comedy Tere Mere Phere) or desolate mountain regions, the landscape is the star of the film. The cinematography is wonderful and doesn’t rely solely on shaky motorcycle-mounted cameras. Two songs by Yes frontman Jon Anderson are additional treats.
The journey begins in Rishikesh, with an ultimate terminus in Khardungla at a height of 18,380 feet. Even though Adam, six friends, and their guru make the journey in June, some of the roads are still covered in several feet of snow. It would be hard enough to navigate in a Land Rover, let alone on a motorcycle.
The trip is initiated by Anand, a guru Adam has followed for three years. Anand is twenty-seven years old, looks like a rock star, and prefers to ride his bike without a helmet. He convinces Adam to invite some buddies along and ride the highest pass with him, ostensibly to further Adam’s spiritual development.
Unlike his friends, Adam has never ridden a motorcycle. When the journey begins, he has exactly four weeks of riding experience under his belt. The journey takes them on potholed, single-lane roads hugging the edges of cliffs. To say that this is ambitious for a novice bike rider is an understatement.
The more that is revealed about Anand, the worse an idea this whole trip seems. According to the astrological chart created for Anand at his birth, he will die in an accident in his late twenties. Since Anand believes this prophecy, is he defying his destiny by taking this trip, or embracing it in a death wish?
Anand’s disregard for his own personal safety is his business, but it’s irresponsible of him to expose others to mortal danger. The group make their ascent without first adapting to the increased altitude. Several riders don’t have warm enough clothing. There are a number of accidents in the first few days of the trip. Anand ignores the threat of avalanche because he “felt a calling” to ride immediately rather than wait a few days for safer conditions.
Brooks — a Broadway producer who survives getting hit by a truck while on the trip — is the lone voice of reason, suspecting that Anand may not be as prepared as he claims to be.
Anand dismisses the legitimate concerns of the group by imploring them to replace their fear with love, as if fear is an abnormal response when a truck is hurtling downhill toward you, and you’ve got a cliff on one side and a mountain on the other. As if love offers any protection under those circumstances.
Because the group seems so intent on finding spiritual meaning, they dismiss Anand’s recklessness as a challenge to be overcome. When things go well, success is attributed to divine protection rather than dumb luck.
I suspect the participants would’ve experienced personal growth and fulfillment even if they failed to make it to their destination. But then there wouldn’t be a movie.