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Hindu professor dismisses ‘Guru’ as ‘crass’

The Associated Press asked Vasudha Narayanan, a distinguished professor of Hinduism, to see the movie with one question in mind: Could “Love Guru” be seen as an affront to Hindus?
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the run-up to this weekend’s release of “The Love Guru,” self-described Hindu leader Rajan Zed began blasting e-mail releases to media outlets (including The Associated Press) from his Nevada home, stating his objections to the Mike Myers comedy when it was still a two-minute trailer.

While the movie avoids explicit connections to Hinduism, Zed’s concerns center on the frivolous use of Hindu terms — gurus, the ashram, karma, yoga — and crude allusions to its traditions. The potential for stereotyping was great, he argued, because the culture is not widely understood in America.

Paramount, which has previewed sensitive films to select audiences in the past, said in a March statement that “It is our full intention to screen the film for Rajan Zed and other Hindu leaders once it is ready.” Zed said his repeated requests for an early screening were unmet, however, and he continued his campaign after buying a ticket this weekend.

In search of another perspective, the AP asked Vasudha Narayanan, a distinguished professor of Hinduism in India & the Diaspora at The University of Florida, to see the movie with one question in mind: Could “Love Guru” be seen as an affront to Hindus?

Narayanan, who is not connected to Zed and is too quick with a laugh to seem easily offended, was game. She thought she knew what she was getting into when she and her 22-year-old son went to a Saturday matinee in Gainesville, Fla.

“What can I say?” she said shortly after leaving the theater. “Having raised two boys, I think I could handle the most puerile sense of humor. I wasn’t offended, I was just ... it was sick!”

At only one point did Narayanan, who holds a Ph.D. from The University of Bombay, say she truly cringed: “When I saw the guru peeing into the bucket — it’s easy for people to take offense at this, especially, if this is associated with guru behavior,” she said, offering the caveat that “by that time it was so over-the-top that it almost didn’t register.”

In her own words, here are Narayanan’s thoughts on ‘Guru’“Guru,” in many Indian languages, means “heavy” or “huge,” suggesting the profound nature of a spiritual teacher’s advice. The tag line for “The Love Guru” is “His Karma is Huge,” but alas, the only thing heavy about the movie is the puerile humor.

The new Mike Myers movie is so obviously a farce that it is hard to take it seriously. How else can one view a guru riding an elephant named Bodhisattva (a primarily Buddhist figure), surrounded by Hollywood glitz, and who longs to be on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”?

There are, of course, some traditional messages embedded in the story, but they are crusted with toilet humor that borders on the fetid.

The movie spoofs gurus, pop-psychology, Freud, self-help czars, Bollywood movies — all classic targets for lampooning — and had it not been for the continued scatological lines, could have even been amusing.

Audience members over 40 will recognize several references that recall the gurus and movements of the ’60s: Rajneesh, TM (transcendental meditation), etc. — people and organizations that became famous in India after gaining popularity in the West. Some of the rare moments that evoked spontaneous laughter were those that showed starlets dressed up in Hindi-movie costumes and doing Bollywood dances.

One such “Guru” moment — one that many Indians will immediately find familiar — is the scene in which Guru Pitka (Myers) meets Jane Bullard (Jessica Alba). Recognizing her as a soulmate, the guru’s mind drifts into a classic and oft-repeated Bollywood movie scene, where Lord Krishna and his girlfriend, Radha, frolic in a pastoral set against the backdrop of Hindi film music. (This is a traditional trope in Indian culture — earlier this year, an Internet cartoon making its rounds in India portrayed Barack Obama as Krishna and Hillary Rodham Clinton as Radha.)

But there are others — like the moment the master guru in India urinates into a bucket, or the several graphic portrayals of boogers — that not only Hindus would find distinctly puerile (a word, by the way, from the Latin “puerilis,” etymologically connected with the Sanskrit-Indian word “putra,” or son).

‘It's just crass’But is this movie offensive to Hindus?

In answering the question, one has to remember that the Hindu traditions are exceptionally diverse; there is a wide range of opinion on practically every issue. Just about everyone I know loves the character Apu from “The Simpsons” and are happy that an Indian character has become part of mainstream entertainment. Still, there are a few who think the animated convenience-store owner is just another outrageous stereotype.

Most Hindus, however, have a good sense of humor and can make fun of their religion. From Sanskrit texts to the many vernacular movies, from dramas to even temple sculpture in India, religions are the subject of not just respect, but also satire and parody.

However, all that is “in-house” humor, and Hindus feel comfortable laughing at themselves or an imagined “other.” When a movie is made by outsiders and comes with all the clout of Hollywood, and this becomes a lens through which Americans may perceive Hinduism — like the second “Indiana Jones” film — some Hindus in the diaspora become concerned. And unlike the “Harold and Kumar” films, which poke fun at the “model-minority” Asian stereotype, “The Love Guru” ostensibly deals with religion, one that is frequently misunderstood by the media.

That said, the movie is not overtly anti-Hindu — or even anti-guru. It is as much a spoof of American followers as it is of gurus, Indian or American. In the end, it is just crass — and does a good job offending many sensibilities, not just Hindu ones.

One could argue that there are some traditional messages embedded in the plot — these illustrate lines that we hear in many religious traditions (including Hinduism) and New Age movements, or from self-help teachers.

Darren Roanoke, the Toronto Maple Leafs star, cannot be victorious unless he controls himself first; and to do this, he has to face his insecurities and his fears. Guru Pitka must learn to put others before himself, succeeding only after passing up a coveted slot on “Oprah.” We have to love ourselves before we can love others. One has to have confidence in one’s abilities and not fear evil.

And one has to learn to laugh, really laugh, to let go and be natural and in harmony with life.

Too bad there are few such real laughs in the movie!