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‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’: Investigating the yoga guru’s alleged crimes

Still from ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.

Still from ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

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The Netflix documentary tracks Bikram Choudhury’s career from his rise to fame in the 70s to his eventual flight from the U.S. in 2017 to evade prosecution

A “pre #MeToo story in a post #MeToo world” is how filmmaker Eva Orner described Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator in a Q&A session after the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film, which comes to Netflix on November 20, chronicles the rape and sexual harassment charges against Bikram Choudhury, the Indian immigrant who set up base in Beverly Hills to popularise his brand of yoga in the U.S. Choudhury, who was endorsed by celebrities like Madonna, and counted among his followers Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand , ran a successful global franchise called Bikram Yoga studios.

 

Orner tracks the “criminal” yogi’s rise to fame in the 70s, the mansion and the many Rolls-Royces and Bentleys he came to possess, his rapid fall when assault charges came to light in 2013, and his eventual flight from the U.S. in 2017 to evade prosecution. Even as he remains fugitive, his business continues to thrive across the world.

In fact, what got Orner interested in the project was that Choudhury seemed to have gotten away with it all. “#MeToo happened during the production period [of the film] and with it came the outing and reckoning of so many powerful men… [So] the fact that Bikram got away with his crimes was even more relevant and chilling,” she says in an email interview.

Orner puts together archival footage, detailed testimonies and interviews to tell a comprehensive tale. In the interaction with her first-ever audience at TIFF she pointed out that the young women had shown admirable courage in speaking to her on camera at a pre #MeToo time when the world was not quite as supportive or sensitised. “They were threatened, vilified... They lost employment and their community... And they got nothing... The settlements were not big,” she said.

Still from ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.

Still from ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Close to the bone

It feels chillingly close to the bone in the post #MeToo scenario as well. Men, despite being called out for abuse, continue to thrive, while women face retribution for taking on powerful men.

Many of the women who came out to accuse Choudhury were in denial and it took them years to come to terms with it. There was the fear of losing jobs, there was the pressure to not speak up. In the film, the women look back at their own behaviour in disbelief: one of them bade Choudhury “good night, sir” when she left after the incident; another kissed his forehead as he watched a kitschy Bollywood film in his hotel suite.

“Historically, women have often been too terrified and traumatised to speak out about sexual assault. They wouldn’t confide in friends or family because of the shame associated with it. They didn’t report the assaults to police, because, as we see in the film, when Larissa went to the LAPD to report Bikram raping her, they asked her questions like ‘Were you drunk, what were you wearing,’” says Orner.

The film begins on a light note, showing the dazzling, dodgy world of Choudhury — more performer than yogi — flashy, pompous, wallowing in his own presumed greatness. He claimed to have arrived in the U.S. in 1973 to cure President Richard Nixon of phlebitis and was gifted a green card in return. Dressed in a black Speedo, a Rolex on his wrist, mixing coarse language with songs, he makes for a rough bully of a teacher. His strategy is ostensibly about getting people healthy the hard way, through 26 postures and two breathing techniques, , all the while scolding and humiliating them. Everyone must obey, never question. The faith of his followers seems misplaced, blind and delusional.

Still from ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.

Still from ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

“We tried to portray Bikram as somewhat appealing and charismatic in the first act as it is important to show why people were drawn to him and the yoga. But once we hit about the 30-minute mark of the film, we paint a very bleak picture of him as a predator, rapist, liar and criminal. I have no objectivity about him. I think he is a terrible man and a fugitive who should be tried criminally in the U.S.,” says Orner.

Ugly revelations

Nonetheless, she follows a linear, investigative approach that puts the whole story out there. Right down to the fact that the techniques Choudhury claims as his own have in fact been stolen from his own hatha yoga guru Bishnu Charan Ghosh. The most revealing are the clips from his deposition on the lawsuits where he claims it was the women who had forced themselves on him. The ugliest moment is when he is asked about the three things he dislikes, to which he adds a fourth: “Cold food, cold weather, cold heart, and cold p***y”.

Orner has a lot to thankher archival researcher and assistant editor for, as they dug out the material. “I think the most important thing about searching for archival material is never giving up. We found a cache of unseen footage four weeks before we locked the picture; it took us about a year to find it.” Among the women she interviewed, three have seen the film so far. “I don’t want to speak on their behalf, but I think they were all very pleased they had shared their stories... It’s somewhat cathartic and provides some closure that their stories will be seen globally and Bikram will be exposed for who he truly is,” she says.

The filmmaker tried to interview Choudhury but it never happened. “I knew I could make the film without an interview as he had talked to the press so much over the years, I knew we could build a full character with the archives,” she says.

Poster of ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.

Poster of ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Orner hopes her film will encourage women to come out about harassment. She would also like to put the ball in the men’s court: “One of the many great achievements of #MeToo is that it has empowered women to speak out and not feel shame. And to support each other. It’s vital that men speak up and support women as well.”

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:10:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/bikram-yogi-guru-predator-investigating-the-yoga-gurus-alleged-crimes/article29982535.ece

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