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Toronto Film Review: ‘Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator’

Can a community punish a predator? Eva Orner's compelling documentary demands justice for women bent to their guru's will

1 hr. 26 min.

Never trust a man in Speedos who promises to change your life. That’s advice from director Eva Orner’s “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator,” a doc that bends and snaps the self-described God status of megalomaniac yoga coach Bikram Choudhury, who sexually assaulted his female students while bragging he was the smartest and most spiritual man they’d ever be lucky enough to meet. The women were paying for the privilege: $10,000 each for a nine-week teacher training camp at a hotel where Choudhury slept in the presidential suite. Or rather, as Choudhury claims he only needed one hour of rest a night, where he instead summoned pupils to his bedroom for a 3 a.m. massage — and they went, because he alone controlled their future. Some say they were pressed against walls or pressured to touch his penis. Some say they were raped.

“Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” is more than an indictment of a man. Orner cross-examines the community that protected a bully for four decades, ever since Bikram pranced before TV cameras flexing his pecs for a cheering audience. His body was incredible. So was his story: He was a three-time National India Yoga Champion who’d earned a green card healing President Nixon’s left leg. And Orner structures her doc so that if you, too, believe him, you’ll understand how easily his fans fell in line.

As Choudhury’s former students explain, his classes sculpted abs and brainwashed minds. No one has a complaint about the 26-posture routine, which he claimed merited a patent as he’d composed it like a song. Yet, the 90-minute session in a 105-degree room left them feeling like they survived a “near death” experience and were now pliable in more ways than one. Choudhury demanded obedience in exchange for tangible results. In re-created footage, cinematographer Jenna Rosher zooms in on the perspiration; there’s a visceral shudder when one girl squeezes her foot and releases a river of sweat.

Archival tapes of Choudhury’s original sessions reveal a man who sat above the herd on a throne with his own personal air conditioner. According to his disciples, he’d scream they were fat or weak, and called at least one woman a “black bitch.” Occasionally, he’d descend clad only in skivvies and a Rolex, to bend ladies into vulnerable positions and whisper come-ons into their ear. Editor Kimberley Hassett repeatedly comes back to an image that appears to have been Choudhury’s signature move: a woman bent backward in a circle with her chest open to the sky as the yogi stands on her belly, triumphantly commanding applause.

Choudhury still does that move, now abroad, where he fled in 2017 after losing his first civil suit from former employee Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, one of a dozen subjects in the film. The first to come forward, however, is a young mother and yoga teacher named Sarah Baughn who demonstrates true inspiration and strength. If “Bikram” is a test case for how the courts, and the culture, will handle reputable accusations against powerful men (you can probably think of a few others in the news), it doesn’t bode well for victims. Orner asks several times why Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey has failed to file criminal charges, giving excuses that leave the plaintiffs’ lawyers unsatisfied. Perhaps this doc will twist Lacey’s own arm.

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Toronto Film Review: 'Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 9, 2019. Running time: 86 MIN.

Production: A Netflix, Inc. presentation of a Pulse Films production. Producers: Eva Orner, Sarah Anthony. Executive producers: Emma Cooper, Marisa Clifford, Thomas Benski.

Crew: Director: Eva Orner. Camera: Jenna Rosher. Editor: Kimberley Hassett, Forrest Borie. Music: Cornel Wilczek, Pascal Babare.

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