By Richard von Busack
If a documentary is worth anything, it will display mixed feelings about its subject. I’m not completely sure how totally beguiled the directors of the documentary Gurukulam, by producer/director Jillian Elizabeth and Neal Dalal, are by their tour of an ashram in the mountains of rural Tamil Nadu, in the lower tip of India. The presiding guru Dayananda Saraswati is elderly, requiring the support of a pair of acolytes when he gets around. Elizabeth and Dalal 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.
As a child in matters of Hindu lore, I got the most sense out of the guru’s utterances 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 shinny 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 mountaintop, with peacocks; the appeal is best explained to us by a former psychology professor who gave the West up to live a life as a disciple 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.
‘Gurukulam’ opens Friday, June 24 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center. Rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.