'Gurukulam': Film Review

Guru Still 1 Publicity H 2016
Courtesy of Matson Films
This meditative doc is strictly for the spiritually inclined.

Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal's immersive documentary depicts day-to-day life in an Indian ashram.

If you've ever contemplated retreating to an ashram in India you'd do well to first check out Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal's documentary depicting daily life in Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, located in a remote forest in Tamil Nadu. Focusing on the late Swami Dayananda Saraswati (he passed away last year at the age of 85) — one of the foremost teachers of the Hindu philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta-- Gurukulam succeeds in its goal of immersing the viewer in its gentle and spiritual setting. Whether you'll achieve enlightenment watching it is another question.

Indeed, this is not a film for the restless and impatient. So meditative in its rhythms that it will make you yearn for a mantra to chant, it's definitely designed to appeal to those more enamored of Andre Gregory's windy philosophizing than Wallace Shawn's regular guy pragmatism in My Dinner with Andre.

The film introduces viewers to several international students at the ashram's five-week course, including a Japanese yoga teacher (no surprise there) and a French Muslim businessman (rather less likely) who explain why they've made the journey. But the filmmakers are less interested in them than in chronicling the ashram's day-to-day activities, ranging from the spiritual to the prosaic. Needless to say, it all looks very soothing and relaxing, especially when seen from the vantage point of an urban movie theater.

The elderly, bright orange-robed Saraswati is an appealing and charismatic central figure, delivering his often humor-tinged teachings while sitting cross-legged before his adoring students. Casual viewers, meaning those not terribly familiar with Hindu philosophy, may find themselves becoming impatient with such aphorisms as "You don't require a flashlight to see the sun," "What is self-evident is self-existent" and "All that is here is non-duality."

By the time the film ends, you'll certainly have the feeling of what it must be like to experience life in this bucolic spiritual retreat. Unfortunately, you'll also feel like you've been there for the full five weeks. 

Distributor: Matson Films

Directors: Jillian Elizabeth, Neil Dalal

Producer: Jillian Elizabeth

Director of photography: J.P.Sniadecki

Editor: Mary Lampson

Not rated, 108 minutes