In their equanimous portrait of an Indian religious community, Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal contemplate enlightenment through an earthly source. They capture the quiet activity of Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, an ashram in the lush hills of Tamil Nadu, with an observational documentary style that trades dispassionate distance for sympathetic immersion. With subtle shifts of perspective, the co-directors present the rural Hindu retreat as a calm, unrelenting workplace for staff members who begin work before dawn or a spiritual preparatory school-cum-summer camp for the eager, diverse disciples of Swami Dayananda Saraswati.
The directorial debut of both producer and cinematographer Elizabeth (Whatever It Takes) and Dalal, a professor of South Asian philosophy and religion, Gurukulam (also known as One Without a Second) is graceful and respectful, peppered with moments that highlight the human nature of divine contemplation. The focused and charismatic Saraswati is also a frail, elderly man, with an assistant on each arm to help him walk. At one point, a debate breaks out between them about where to place a coffee cup because Saraswati is so immersed in reading that he’ll likely knock it over with a heavy text.
Dalal studies Advaita Vedanta, and many scenes feature Saraswati trying to elucidate this philosophy of non-duality, but Gurukulam depicts place better than ideas. Sound designer Ernst Karel (Leviathan) firmly grounds the documentary’s subjects, with every clank and scrape declaring their presence in the physical world. The filmmakers don’t idealize the ashram as an escapist Utopia, they simply admire its solid foundation.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on June 3, 2016 by Matson Films
First published in The Village Voice, 2016.