Jilian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal train their cameras on the Arsha Vidya Gurukulam—an ashram in the forest of Tamil Nadu, India—and its students learning from Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Like Frederick Wiseman’s landmark institutional studies, this one works best when it captures the scope of activities surrounding this one place—not just spiritual practices, but the nuts and bolts of providing food, doing the laundry, even keeping ants out of the building (but humanely). And it’s effective, in its brief visits to the outside world, of showing the modern cacophony from which the ashram is an escape, although a ringing cell phone might still distract someone from prayer. What’s missing is the ability to create vibrant characters without having to stop for direct-to-camera interviews (as occasionally happens here), and the reality that Saraswati himself—while his lessons often contain amusing parables—remains distant and enigmatic. With its frequent pauses to listen to the swami’s teachings, Gurukulam sometimes feels more like an attempt to convert than an attempt to convey, a meditative profile that needed its meditation to be a bit more guided.
Director: Neil Dalal and Jillian Elizabeth
Producer: Jillian Elizabeth