As the people of Kazakhstan know all too well, mockery of culture and religion seems to be kosher in Hollywood, under the following conditions:
The humor must be so over-the-top, so beyond reality, that it could never be misconstrued as mean-spirited. That, and the targeted groups cannot be large enough, loud enough or organized enough so that their hurt feelings make an impact at the box office.
Just ask Borat. Though Kazakhs complained that their country and customs were grossly misrepresented in “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the film was a $128 million domestic success — among the top-grossing films of 2006.
In the context of Sacha Baron Cohen’s uncomfortable in-character interactions with unwitting Americans, Mike Myers’ parody of another cultural minority in the U.S. — as the oversexed, overly ambitious, American-born spiritual leader in the summer comedy “The Love Guru” — would hardly seem cause for complaint.
Myers’ character is an amalgamation of Eastern-style spiritual movements, never making reference to any particular religion. And yet the Guru Pitka — billed as “the second best guru in India” — draws a distinct picture.
He wears long hair, a long beard and a flowing caftan. “Prepare to get your enlightenment freak on,” Pitka tells visitors to his MySpace page, where he blends real information — such as the Sanskrit origins of the word “guru” — with silliness, including impossible yoga poses that would require elastic limbs. He plays sappy pop songs on the sitar. His mantra is “Mariska Hargitay.”
Pitka identifies himself as “a spiritual teacher affiliated with no one faith” and has the same crass-and-goofy charm as Myers’ Austin Powers and “Wayne’s World” characters. And the movie’s plot — he heads West when he’s offered $2 million to heal a hockey star’s romance so the team can win the Stanley Cup — is harmless enough.
Still, weeks before the movie is even ready for screening, some in the Hindu community feel that “The Love Guru” has the potential to ridicule important elements of their religion.
Film promotes Hindu stereotypesRajan Zed, a self-described Hindu leader from Nevada, demanded that Paramount Pictures screen the film for members of the Hindu community before it is released in June. Based on the movie’s trailer and MySpace page, Zed says “The Love Guru” “appears to be lampooning Hinduism and Hindus” and uses sacred terms frivolously.
“People are not very well-versed in Hinduism, so this might be their only exposure,” he told The Associated Press. “They will have an image in their minds of stereotypes. They will think most of us are like that.”
Paramount, which has screened sensitive films for select audiences in the past, said early screenings would be held for the Hindu community.
“‘Love Guru,’ which is not yet complete, is a satire created in the same spirit as ‘Austin Powers,’” Paramount said in a statement, noting that the film features spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra and Hindu actor Manu Narayan. “It is our full intention to screen the film for Rajan Zed and other Hindu leaders once it is ready.”
Myers, who declined to be interviewed for this story, says in an episode of the Sundance Channel’s “Iconoclasts” that Chopra, his longtime friend, was the inspiration for the Love Guru character.
“He is the basis of why I went down this path of a character like that, and it’s because I am interested in higher states of consciousness and I am interested in comedy,” Myers says. “The guru, he breaks down your barriers, gets you silly and gets you light so you’re in a place to receive love.”
But religious communities rarely take well to faith-themed comedies, said Diane Winston, a professor of media and religion at the University of Southern California.
“To be funny, you have to get in people’s faces and disturb their complacent perspectives,” she said. “Religious groups have tended to be very concerned about their portrayal in the media, especially the entertainment media. Often ... in comedies, it’s a very broad representation which they perceive as offensive. It’s the nature of stereotype.”
Her take on “The Love Guru” trailer and Web site? Rather than a spoof of Eastern religion, it seems more of a satire of American culture’s tendency toward materialism, promiscuity and quick spiritual fixes told through a pseudo religious figure.
“The character didn’t have to be a guru. He could just as well have been a rabbi, minister, priest or imam,” she said. “These are problems within the culture at large.
“Hindus were a fresh target,” she continued. “Jews and Christians have been parodied before so perhaps Myers thought this was a different take on a familiar comedy routine.”
‘A good satire should pinch a bit’Myers’ publicist, Ina Treciokas, declined to comment for this story.
A Hindu nun at the Vedanta Society of Southern California, who asked not to be named because she felt it was not appropriate to seem like she was speaking for the faith, said secular and religious culture are “fused” in India, which could give rise to sensitivity if it appears sacred customs are being ridiculed.
“A good satire should pinch a bit,” she said. “To gauge the movie on two minutes is impossible. But I can see, after having seen two minutes, that people who are sensitive would want to see more.”
Just as most viewers of “Borat” know that the character’s over-the-top antics have little to do with the reality in Kazakhstan, Myers’ Guru Pitka is similarly silly — and has nothing explicitly to do with Hinduism. Still, the film was inspired by Myers’ real spiritual quest, which began after his father’s death in 1991.
Paramount officials point out that “The Love Guru” is “non-denominational comedy that celebrates spirituality and that the character has his own fictional belief system.”
For all its sight gags and goofy jokes, the film is about three things, Myers says: “It’s about fate versus choice ... it’s about self love and the third part of it is that internal validation trumps external validation.”