Review: 'Gurukulam'

After visiting Indian guru, documentary crew leaves with more
questions than they came with.
EAST MEETS WEST: Documentarians visit an Indian guru and leave with more questions than when they started.

If a documentary is worth anything, it will display mixed feelings about its subject. That being the case, I'm not completely sure how totally beguiled the directors of Gurukulam might be by their tour of an ashram in the mountains of Tamil Nadu, in rural southern India.

The presiding guru Dayananda Saraswati is elderly, requiring the support of a pair of acolytes when he gets around. Co-producers and directors Neil Dalal and Jillian Elizabeth had fine access; Saraswati pays no attention to the camera, or anything but his reading, as he's having his saffron-colored socks changed by a helper. On a trip to purify a temple, the guru meets with farmers whose fields are being invaded by elephants, beasts they've been trying to pray away. Saraswati gifts them with dried beans, a gift that underwhelms them as it would underwhelm an American.

Since the ashrams' teachings include Sanskrit grammar, not everything the Guru says can be easily grasped; maybe he was most lucid during a sermon delivered to a group of children. "Work when you work, play when you play if you want to be a good person, have good thoughts." Inarguable. Inarguable, that is, yet dismaying to hear the same futile "I must not think bad thoughts" advice most of us got as children.

Working when they work, as it were, the unidentified devotees shimmy up coconut trees, clean dishware, and sweep the pathways with handleless brooms. It's unclear how much of a contrast the filmmakers intend between the life of the mind and the labor carried out by the people who keep the ashram humming.

What Gurukulam does well is encourage that daydream—part Elizabeth Gilbert, part Doctor Strange comics—of dropping out to the East. Gurukulam is a lovely ashram: 14 acres on a mountain top, with peacocks. The appeal is best explained to us by a former psychology professor who gave up on the West to live his life as a disciple of Saraswati for more than a decade. Ultimately besotted with the subject, the camera grows passive, encouraging the hierarchal approach to enlightenment, and the kind of wishful thinking that tries to pray away elephants.

Not Rated: 108 Mins.
Camera 3, San Jose

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