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Review: ‘Gurukulam’ documentary fails to find oneness with itself

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“Gurukulam” (Sanskrit for House of Guru) is a shapeless, point-and-shoot documentary set mainly at a remote ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. For a movie seemingly concerned with clarity and enlightenment, it’s woefully lacking in both.

Directors Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal take us inside the forested Arsha Vidya retreat, where the ancient Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta is taught by an elderly monk and scholar, Swami Dayananda Saraswati. (He died in 2015). Although Dayananda’s students and followers hang on the shaman’s every word, uninitiated viewers may find his gentle pronouncements involving “wholeness” and “oneness” more simplistic and elliptical than profound.

The filmmakers also introduce us to several of the ashram’s attendees, including an American psychology professor and a French businessman. However, as with most else in this limited-context doc, there’s little specific identification of whom or what we are actually watching. The “why” of it all can feel dubious as well.

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Just because there’s a fly-on-the-wall intimacy to how the movie was shot doesn’t guarantee viewers will be drawn into its exotic imagery for more than moments at a time; Elizabeth and Dalal’s contemplative, nonlinear approach is in desperate need of shrewder editing and tighter pacing. But as it stands, this is a largely stultifying journey strictly for the very patient.

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‘Gurukulam’

In English, Tamil, Sanskrit with English subtitles

No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena


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