Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has exposed countless terrible men guilty of sexual harassment and assault, but Bikram Choudhury has yet to face his comeuppance. A searing new documentary from Netflix on the “hot yoga” founder lays it all out in a blunt title: “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.” It doesn’t bring much new information to the table, but it’s an infuriating look at the way Choudhury seduced thousands of followers with his yoga franchise, while raping and assaulting innumerable women, and how he managed — so far — to get away with it. Choudry belongs in jail, and this frustrating overview provides the latest opportunity to keep that conversation in the public eye.
Director Eva Orner covers many of the details addressed in last year’s revealing “30 for 30” podcast miniseries, but with footage of the domineering guru and testimonies from several of his victims whose visible anger reinforces the tragedy. Orner stuffs the full arc of Choudhury’s story into a tight 86 minutes, encapsulating the paradox of his legacy: While many of his closest confidantes express a profound sense of betrayal, they don’t hesitate to acknowledge the positive impact he had on their lives.
Choudhury’s meticulous studio routine forced his disciplines to pretzel their bodies into 26 positions while he probed away at their resistance. The sweaty process was inextricable from the colorful man behind it, who roamed the rooms in a revealing speedo while hurling pejoratives to growing numbers of students who welcomed the demeaning challenge. Described by one of his former underlings as “a cross between Mother Teresa and Howard Stern,” Choudry’s theatrical antics were the perfect coup, an athletic challenge that promised his followers could improve their lives, as long as they put money in his pocket and kept him in charge.
“Bikram” wastes no time explaining the eventual downfall of Choudhury’s studio, as it begins with a combative testimony in which he denies all charges. From there, however, it charts out the disturbing way that his growing stature enabled an ecosystem where he could do as he pleases. Holding court in a Los Angeles hotel where he maintained teacher training sessions, Choudry allegedly raped and assaulted close peers and newcomers alike, but it wasn’t until Sarah Baughn went public with a sexual harassment suit in 2015 that the accusations began to pile up. Orner captures many of these stories, but Baughn’s interview gives the movie a central voice that drives the narrative, as she’s able to enunciate the precise ways in which Choudry’s ecosystem first made her feel welcome, and then trapped, by a tyrannical society of his own making.
Choudhury doesn’t talk to the filmmaker, which allows his victims to remain in control of the narrative. At the same time, he’s already said enough to tell his side of the story, as previous interviews provide ample voiceover material. His detailed recollections capture the growth of the movement from its initial popularity in the ’70s through recent years, and illustrate the penchant for storytelling that allowed him to remain in control. It’s not until late in the movie that Orner finds experts to explain the vast holes in Choudhury’s history, from his supposed championship achievements in Indian yogic competitions that don’t exist, to the specifics of his process that he appears to have stolen from another guru in Calcutta. Choudry was a robust self-mythologizer (he even claimed to have cured Richard Nixon of an injury) who preyed on unsuspecting Americans eager for his help. “He has his own truth,” one subject says, and it’s astonishing to see how he coasted to fame and fortune with no repercussions for so long.
Unlike the multi-episode podcast, “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” doesn’t cover every side of Choudhury’s story in detail. The role of his wife in sustaining his misdeeds barely receives a cursory mention, and the movie rushes through fallout from the lawsuits brought against him in its final act. The movie often feels as if it has been engineered with a Netflix audience in mind, providing just enough details to encourage outraged viewers to google around.
And they should. “Bikram” issues a searing indictment of its subject and reignites the rage around his capacity to evade justice. It closes with a shocking image of the guru with a new class of participants from a 2018 workshop in Mexico, where he fled the courts, and has yet to face criminal charges from the L.A. district attorney’s office. As a cinematic achievement, “Bikram” is fairly tame; as a mass-media call to action, it’s an essential movie of the moment.
“Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It premieres on Netflix this fall.