Since Eva Orner’s documentary film, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff) on September 9, about six women have written directly, privately to her to share their stories. They have thanked her for making the film and told her that they too were sexually abused by Bikram Choudhury. These women have not spoke out publicly yet, and most hadn’t seen the film. They had just read about it.
Therein lies the power of Orner’s 86-minute Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, which is, at one level, a sharp, objective examination of the cult, clout and ugly narcissism of Bikram Choudhury, and at another an investigation into the accusations against him.
Orner, who co-produced Taxi To The Dark Side, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary on US’ policy of torture and interrogation, calls Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, a “pre-MeToo story showing in a post-MeToo world”.
Her film begins by listening to Choudhury making tall claims, including that he arrived in America in 1973 to cure Richard Nixon of phlebitis and was gifted a green card by the then US President. Thereafter he moved to Los Angeles where he opened a yoga studio in Beverly Hills.
The film uses archival footage of Choudhury conducting his hot yoga classes where the temperature remained constant, at 40 degree centigrade, and Bikram the guru was equally unrelenting.
In the 90-minute classes, which he conducted wearing a Speedo and a Rolex, the cult of Bikram and his yoga was shaped and sharpened. Here, as students were pushed to their limit to master 26 postures and two breathing techniques, they were first broken down, and then rebuilt.
Choudhury would inspire and goad his students with jokes, by singing songs, shout at them, scold, heckle, even abuse, all the while repeating claims of being “one of the last living yogis” in the world whose shot at Olympic gold in weightlifting was thwarted by an accident.
Choudhury claims that he, with the help of his guru in Calcutta, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, rebuilt his spirit, and leg which had broken into hundred-thousand pieces”, and could soon sit for hours in lotus pose.
He knew the human body, and could help his students harness its power. The poseur, whose students now included several celebrities — from Shirley MacLaine and Barbra Streisand to Frank Sinatra and Quincey Jones — also claimed that he has taught yoga to half-a-billion people.
As his students sweated and panted, trying to stabilise their breathing and pushing their bodies to achieve the perfect asana, they were told not to take a break to pee or rest, not to question, to trust the process, to obey and follow the rules, and only then nirvana will be theirs. They took the humiliation and the torturous routine in pursuit of praise by the guru.
The conditioning was complete and the cult of Bikram Yogi had been created.
Then came the hook.
In 1990s, Choudhury started a teacher-training program with the idea to build a yoga empire by creating yoga teachers who would conduct classes and run yoga studios across America. The nine-week residential course would cost about $10,000 per head, be conducted in a hotel, after which he would pick 25 teachers to run Bikram Hot Yoga studios.
It was around this time that Madonna spoke of Bikram’s Hot Yoga on Oprah Winfrey’s show, and Choudhury’s business “went nuts.”
In 2006, Choudhury had more than 600 yoga studios worldwide, and about 40 Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were parked in his Beverly Hills mansion.
According to a report, in 2010, “when Choudhury was at the height of his power, he charged $10,900 per student, and 380 forked over the sum to join him in San Diego, including Friedman. The quick math: nearly $4.15 million gross for that single teacher training.”
Most of the accusations of sexual assault and rape pertain to the teachers training programme where “week 5 was called the sex week”.
Though Choudhury would, at times during the class, press himself inappropriately against some of the women students, whisper innuendoes to them, it was mostly at night, when he had retired to his Presidential Suite in the hotel, that he would summon a girl to massage him. A Bollywood film would be playing loudly, and he would either guide her hand or force himself upon them.
Choudhury could approve or disapprove a teaching license or studio application. And his students, certain that their dream and livelihood dependent on him, were so conditioned and scared that two of the women who filed cases against him also spoke of how shocked they still are at their own behaviour. After they were sexually assaulted, one of them left after saying “good night sir”, while the other kissed Choudhury on the forehead while saying bye.
In 2016-2017, six separate lawsuits were filed in California, accusing Choudhury, now 75 years old, of racial discrimination, gay slurs, sexual harassment and rape. While he settled a number of them, in the sexual harassment case filed by Minakshi Jafa-Bodden, Choudhury’s former attorney, the judge ordered him to pay her $6.8 million. Choudhury then allegedly packed up his Beverly Hills headquarters and fled the US. His wife, Rajashree, filed for divorce.
As clips of his deposition in response to the lawsuits play on the screen, a narrative arc begins to form, one that’s eerily common to all cases of sexual abuse and rape. Choudhury's angry, haughty denial to the accusations and the alibis are all too familiar: “I don’t need to women force myself on women, women throw themselves at me… Any man with money and power is a convenient target… The women could have walked away.”
But as the film dials back to verify his tall claims, and we listen to Choudhury and his colleagues, the posturing yogi unravels. What remains is a man, a criminal who, when questioned about the three things he dislikes during a deposition, corrects and says it’s actually four things: “Cold food, cold weather, cold heart”, and adds, “cold p***y”.
Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator is a testament, a piece of evidence of who Bikram is and what he did. It’s also an inquiry into who you will believe....