TRULY TUESDAY: "BIKRAM: YOGI, GURU, PREDATOR" ON NETFLIX
I've watched a lot of documentaries and docuseries about initially about inspirational, charismatic figures who are eventually unmasked as frauds, thugs, criminals, and killers. It's a running, popular theme, and not just in the true crime genre. We're all walking around with this baseline awareness that there are some real monsters among us, disguised as friends and mentors, just waiting for their opportunity to lure in new victims and drain them of their money, time, energy, and hope for the future. "Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator" will do little to quiet these feelings. It's a frequently terrifying profile of a truly malignant narcissist who had a perfect vehicle for becoming a central, dominating figure in his victims' lives.
The film tells the story of Bikram Choudhury, a yoga teacher from India who comes to the US some time in the 1970s (the timeline remains kind of fuzzy, at least in the film), and eventually becomes one of the key figures in expanding the practice's popularity in the West. Choudhury codified a series of positions and breathing exercises -- performed in a swelteringly hot room -- that he coined "Bikram Yoga," and then started instructing other hopeful teachers how to franchise his program in their own communities. The system not only made Choudhury wealthy and famous, but provided him access to a constant pool of new recruits who were entirely reliant on him and his program for their livelihoods and even their identities and senses of self. By the '00s, tens of millions of people around the world were practicing Bikram Yoga, and Choudhury was one of the most recognized names in the world of wellness. That's when former students and teachers began accusing him of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape.
The film relates all of this backstory, and speaks with a number of students who worked with Choudhury, along with several of his accusers, in a fast-paced and compelling manner. Along the way, it probes a few troubling questions, such as: what to do with Choudhury's (apparently effective) workout program now that we know the truth about the man himself? and how to feel any kind of sense of closure on the story despite a lack of legal consequences for Choudhury, and his continued ability to ply his trade around the world?
A number of the film's subjects -- even some who were victimized or knew people who were directly victimized by the man -- continue to praise the style of yoga that he taught, and rave about the massive improvement it has made in their daily lives. One woman, despite apparently believing the stories being told about her former guru, ends the film by saying that she's glad he continues to teach classes around the world, because the yoga is just that important. (I should add here that director Eva Orner implies that Choudhury stole most of his signature technique from his own master -- a man named Bishnu Charan Ghosh -- in a segment which has sparked a copyright lawsuit.)
"Bikram" doesn't even attempt to answer these questions, so much as explore this one case and then point to the larger, culturally relevant issues that it raises. It's striking how common stories like this have become in a modern age where so many people feel isolated and in need of a community, where marketing and propaganda tools have become so sophisticated, where a corrupt and overwhelmed system allows the wealthy and powerful to brazenly evade justice, and where the ability to attract and hold the attention of others has become such a rare and valuable commodity. Many Americans watching the film will likely be reminded of another charismatic fraud, who embellished the details of his own history, lived a publicly extravagant life to enhance and glamorize his personal brand, and made millions by franchising a dubious school with his own name on it, only to later be accused by multiple women of sexually inappropriate behavior without ever facing any consequences. Or maybe that's just me...
Title: "Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator"
Where to Watch: Netflix
Running time: 86 minutes