In her new Netflix documentary about hot yoga progenitor Bikram Choudhury, director Eva Orner faced a unique dilemma: How to do right by the victims who fell under the spell of the alleged yoga rapist. “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator” is a timely and well-crafted film about the cult-like figure, who has been accused of multiple rapes and sexual assaults but has never faced criminal charges. By speaking out, years before #MeToo, Choudhury’s victims lost jobs, friends, and community, all for little to no personal gain other than protecting potential future victims. In order to honor these brave women, Orner had to first show Choudhury’s charismatic side.
“In act one, we had to create this man who was likable and lovable and a bit playful,” she told IndieWire recently by phone. “Because if we didn’t, we were doing a disservice to the people who became a part of it. They’re not fools, they were sucked into something for a reason because he had charisma, and he promised something.”
That proved quite the challenge, especially considering she found him an “appalling human being.”
“That was definitely the most challenging part of the film for me, and I think for my editors too. I came into this film knowing who he is and not liking him, to say it lightly,” the director said. “For me, that was the hardest part because I think he’s an appalling human being. I had to push that aside and make him likable.”
As shown in the film, Choudhury operates his yoga kingdom much like a cult. In order to be a certified Bikram instructor, hopefuls must endure an expensive nine-week teacher training intensive, usually held in hotels. During these sweat-filled sessions, Choudhury breaks his followers down with a combination of pushing past their physical limits, verbal harassment, and new-age nuggets of tough love. With his students in this vulnerable state, the trainings also served as grooming grounds for his victims.
Orner worked hard to gain the trust of Choudhury’s most devoted followers, who were skeptical at first. Many were curious if Orner had attended the teacher trainings. She took Bikram classes in order to understand the community, but also to figure out how to film the sweaty proceedings. As more and more of Choudhury’s followers and former followers began speaking to her, she began to feel deep respect for the ones who were most affected by his teachings.
One man in particular, who credits Choudhury with completely turning his life around, provides one of the film’s most powerful scenes when he breaks down in tears.
“Jacob was so honest and so brave by putting himself in the line of fire, and then really brave as well when he cries,” said Orner. “He’s crying for a combination of reasons, but he’s actually crying for the disappointment of how Bikram let him down. I think that really shows how in it people were. I think Jake has had a really cathartic experience.”
Another fascinating subject is Patrice, a middle-aged woman who remains in contact with Choudhury and has stood by his side throughout the years of allegations. In a shocking admission, she says she is happy he is still conducting teacher trainings, knowing that is where most of the alleged assaults occurred.
“I actually have a lot of respect for Patrice. A lot of his ardent supporters wouldn’t speak to me,” said Orner. “She sort of reluctantly says she believes the girls. I don’t know how deep that runs to be honest, but I think she’s quite open and transparent and honest and you’ve got to give that to her. She’s got some balls and she’s brave and I think she’s still very enamored with him and the yoga. I’m so grateful she’s in the film. I think she gives it a really rounded feel.”
Viewers may judge Patrice, even if Orner has a different relationship with her. Choudhury, however, never earned the director’s sympathy; in another disgusting moment, Choudhury responds to the accusations by insisting he doesn’t “need” to rape anyone if he wants sex.
Orner couldn’t help but make the connection to another alleged rapist.
“That’s Trumpian. That’s straight out of Trump’s book. I mean, Trump said that — ‘She’s not my type, she’s ugly, I wouldn’t waste my time on her.’ If there’s ever an admission of guilt, that’s it in my mind.”