New Delhi: Once a hot yoga guru in Hollywood, Bikram Choudhury is today labelled a rapist, predator, racist and control maniac. How did his successful story turn around so drastically?
The new Netflix documentary "Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator" aims to answer that question. It traces the journey of how he built his "Bikram" empire, putting spotlight on the dark side of the movement, driven by stories of sexual exploitation, brainwashing, racist comments, rape and control on things outside the yoga studio.
Bikram started having his hot moment in the US when he went to Beverly Hills from India in the early 1970s. Wearing a tiny black Speedo and a tight ponytail, he started carving his story by showing the route of healing with 26 postures over a 90-minute routine practiced in a room heated to 41 degree centigrade. He even tried getting a copyright for his yoga postures.
His success was backed by star power, and his client list included names such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Aniston, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Sinatra and Jason Bateman. His clientele shone with names like Michael Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Shirley MacLaine, Barbra Streisand and Raquel Welch.
Born in Kolkata in 1940s, he said that he was mentored by the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh, and claimed that he cured Richard Nixon of phlebitis.
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In his autobiography, Bikram claimed that he got his green card in the 1970s -- thanks to Nixon -- and opened his first yoga school in 1973 after being urged by Shirley MacLaine.
The other side of success
Starting the narrative with his successful moves, the documentary takes a turn to show the other side of the story -- which seems like a perfect fit in the #MeToo era.
The over one-hour film begins by showing the flashy and pompous life of the yogi, with people narrating how he grew with "no advertising, no social media, no marketing".
In the first half, he is shown as the "last living yogi", who saw potential in people and pushed them to achieve it. He is stern, strict and scolded his followers and sometimes humiliated them, and his yoga classes seemed more like a cult.
"Welcome to Bikram's torture chamber, where you'll kill yourself for the next 90 minutes," he used to say while starting the class.
Rise of a predator, rapist and liar
The story takes a different hue in the second half, as it trains focus on the rise of a predator, rapist and liar, and the fall of a yogi. He is shown calling his students bitches and sometimes climbing onto women as they posed.
Sarah Baughn, the first one to publicly accuse Bikram of sexual misconduct, said that Bikram used to show himself as a champion who the followers needed in their lives to achieve their goals.
Another former student Jakob Schanzer said that Bikram showed him the right direction.
"I needed something in my life, I needed guidance that I didn't have. And I think Bikram saw that right away from me was that I was someone that would be loyal to him," he said in the documentary, in which he goes on to delve on how difficult it was to witness the fall of his guru.
Director Eva Orner has used actual footage to show the extremes of his behaviour, wherein his former students recall how he would mock them.
"What are you doing for your fat f**king stomach?" he said to one, and "You need a pedicure" to another. In one instance, he asked a woman to "massage" his groin area.
Pandhora Williams accused Bikram of racial discrimination, claiming he kicked her out of a course using racist language, telling his assistant: "Get that black bitch out of here. She's a cancer", and refused to return her fee.
The film also shows adverse conditions, with students feeling dizzy and nauseous during sessions.
Larissa Anderson recounts how Bikram raped her, saying: "I felt like my physical body was completely limp, totally numb".
"I want the conversation to continue, and I want him to be stopped. Or, at least minimise opportunities he can (abuse) somebody else. And that's always been the driving force," Anderson told latimes.com while opening up about her decision to share her story in the documentary.
With legal cases piling up against him, he was formally charged in 2016, after which he fled the US.
"He's lost his beloved America and Beverly Hills. That was his thing, the American dream, the cars, the life, he was a celebrity here -- that's gone. But he still lives a big life," latimes.com quoted Orner as saying.
"He travels constantly. He gives talks all around the world, he still makes millions a year," Orner said.
Bikram, who has denied all the charges, is launching his "Bikram's India Legacy Tour" in January 2020, which will travel to cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Jodhpur.
According to latimes.com, Richard Hillgrove, a UK-based publicist who said he has been retained to represent Bikram, said that the yoga guru "totally refutes all the allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment presented in the film and is deeply upset by the continued character assassination".
"Bikram yoga is certainly going through a renaissance worldwide. The attention created by the much talked-about Netflix documentary, 'Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator', has had the opposite effect that many people expected. Droves and droves of people are wanting to experience Bikram Hot Yoga. Despite the somewhat unfair and negative sentiment, Netflix has certainly helped to create a Bikram comeback."
With the story back in focus, it is to be seen whether he is questioned for his actions, or he keeps minting money with his poses and yoga.