'The Ashram': Film Review
Set in the Himalayas of India, Ben Rekhi’s spiritual thriller co-stars Melissa Leo and Sam Keeley as competing followers seeking the favor of a mysterious guru.
Long a destination for spiritual seekers from all over the world, India presents a diversity of religions and a potentially enlightening set of ancient traditions to the uninitiated. More than a few have lost their way in this unfamiliar terrain, though, offering filmmaker Ben Rekhi a ready template for his account of Americans abroad overwhelmed by mystical experiences.
Rekhi, a former entertainment executive, scored points with genre fans with his 2005 debut, Waterborne, but markedly changes themes for The Ashram. Often dominated by a familiar form of Asian-influenced religious eclecticism, Rekhi’s feature plays out as a low-key spiritual thriller that should appeal primarily to like-minded viewers and the inevitably curious.
Not long after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, Sophie (Hera Hilmar), American tourist Jamie (Sam Keeley) arrives in India after receiving a disturbing message from her. The brief, furtive video suggests that she might be in some kind of danger at the isolated ashram where she fled after their split. However, she provides few details about her location and it takes Jamie several stressful days to put together a series of elusive, troubling clues leading him deep into the Himalayan foothills, where he discovers an idyllic mountain retreat. The spiritual center is populated by dozens of people from all over the world who have been drawn there by the teachings of a mysterious guru, including Americans Chandra (Melissa Leo) and Nitin (Kal Penn), but there’s no sign of Sophie.
Not exactly a spiritual believer and already wary of the residents’ cultish devotion to their revered teacher, Jamie conceals his search for Sophie. Instead, he tries to make sense of repeated run-ins with Chandra, the center’s controlling secular leader, who consistently challenges Jamie’s intentions at the retreat. She assigns Nitin to help Jamie get oriented, or perhaps to keep tabs on him. However, Nitin remains evasive about his reasons for joining the community and his familiarity with Sophie, leaving Jamie to wonder if the guru and his devotees could somehow be involved in her disappearance. At the same time, he begins experiencing frightening visions that might be caused by the dizzying altitude, the prescription medication he’s taking for a seizure condition or perhaps even the vaguely sinister mystical influence of the ashram’s inhabitants.
Rekhi’s script, co-written with Binky Mendez, assuredly lays down the broad strokes of the primary narrative, which then gets muddled by competing priorities. To begin with, Jamie’s search for Sophie gradually loses urgency because the details of their relationship take too long to emerge through a series of unwieldy flashbacks as Jamie attempts to ingratiate himself at the ashram. Once revealed, Jamie’s mystical connection with the retreat’s venerable guru seems too far-fetched for the scant background provided by the screenwriters, even though the specifics of their shared experience are integral to revealing Sophie’s fate.
The central conflict between Jamie and Chandra also comes off as too perfunctory, but Leo is so commanding in the role of the ashram’s chief protector that she consistently conveys a complex set of conflicting motivations. Portrayed as an outsider, Keeley frequently appears confused and unprepared for the intellectual challenges of the spiritual community, although he’s not much of sleuth either.
With some additional screen time and a more nuanced role, Penn might have had more of an impact, which seems like a missed opportunity, since he’s the only actor of Indian descent among the principal cast. However, Rekhi appears on mostly firmer ground behind the camera directing the ensemble and especially while shooting exteriors with the stunning Himalayan scenery as a backdrop.
Production companies: Seville International, Sikhya Entertainment
Cast: Melissa Leo, Sam Keeley, Kal Penn, Hera Hilmar, Radhika Apte
Director: Ben Rekhi
Screenwriters: Ben Rekhi, Binky Mendez
Producers: Guneet Monga, Ben Rekhi, Achin Jain
Executive producer: Brian Kavanaugh Jones
Director of photography: Nikos Andritsakis
Costume designer: Abhilasha Sharma
Editor: Dominic LaPerriere, Mike Small
Casting director: Jessica Sherman
Music: Ashu Phatak
Venue: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Not rated, 90 minutes