If a documentary is worth anything, it will display mixed feelings about its subject. I’m not completely sure how beguiled Gurukulam filmmakers Jillian Elizabeth and Neil 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.
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 presents them with dried beans, a gift that underwhelms them, as it would most anyone.
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, 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 in the East. The appeal is best explained in the film by a former psychology professor who gave the West up to live life as a disciple for more than a decade.
And Gurukulam is a lovely ashram: 14 acres on a mountaintop, with peacocks. But ultimately besotted with the subject, the camera grows passive in the end, encouraging the hierarchal approach to enlightenment, and the kind of wishful thinking that tries to pray away elephants.
‘Gurukulam’ opens Friday at Rialto Cinemas 6868 McKinley Ave.,
Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.