Gurukulam is a collaborative documentary, the work of co-directors Jillian Elizabeth and Neil Dalal. Its subject is the quotidian sights and sounds of an ashram in rural Tamil Nadu, India where students dedicate themselves to exploring Vedanta. The filmmakers utilize a minimalist ethnographic cinematography and long take style which places the viewer into the setting. There are scenes where various students at the ashram are interviewed, but the filmmakers themselves are never present in the film (Dalal is himself a scholar of Vedanta) and the exposition is light. Instead, in Gurukulam the camera functions as a curious gazing eye absorbing the proceedings. Elizabeth is a first-time director but a deeply experienced and obviously talented cinematographer, so the camera work throughout is superb.

What the camera sees is an immediately striking juxtaposition of the most ancient human technologies with the most modern. Students in non-Western attire debate the technical intricacies of Sanskrit writing in thousand-years-old texts during breaks from farming traditional vegetable crops. But these students are consistently distracted by cell phones, hail from around the world, have earned advanced degrees at reputable universities and enjoy modern amenities such as electricity and digital technology.

Without overt commentary but with clear intent, Gurukulam batters the viewer with these contrasting images as a commentary on the salience of tradition in the face of the new. Side-by-side with car trips to the airport, the film shows offerings being made to Ganesha. The film is clearly considering the authenticity of the students’ engagement with the Indian religious tradition even while they are immersed in the banal globalization of the twenty-first century. To the credit of the filmmakers, however, Gurukulam resists the temptation to posit a thesis, giving the viewer space to grapple with these ideas on their own merits instead.

At its finest moments, Gurukulam delivers the rarest of thrills: an audiovisual immersion into the insurmountable “Otherness” of an ancient tradition that is always adapting to the world as it is. These fleeting momentary delights are exciting because of the profundity of spiritual experience alongside the unknowability of such practices to the uninitiated. They serve as a reminder that culture, technology and humanity itself are always in flux, always changing and adjusting. It is a refreshingly open-minded glimpse into religion in a time that is increasingly distrustful of gods and the vanities of those who worship them.

For all of its plentiful merits, Gurukulam is not without its faults. Chief among these is an often-maddening inconsistency in tone and atmosphere, a problem typical of debut films. In its opening moments Gurukulam is powerfully evocative of the ethereal sensibilities of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, particularly his acclaimed Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but it hastily abandons these mystical pretensions for a more straightforward approach. This new approach closely resembles Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s similar-in-setting documentary Manakamana, but again the application of this style wavers toward more typical documentary forms.

Ultimately, Gurukulam is significantly less technically audacious or stylistically singular than these other films. While it portends to abandon narrative, it is actually a fairly conventional documentary treatment of a rather unconventional subject and place.

The other noteworthy flaw of Gurukulam is an outgrowth of its tonal inconsistency. Namely, the film never properly employs a narrative arc with a concentration on a single subject. Sometimes it is biographical while in other scenes the focus is on fundamental questions about truth and in yet other moments Gurukulam is simply recording everyday life. The half-baked nature of the film’s overall arc is surely a consequence of its pretensions towards experimental form—it wants to transcend narrative as a way of saying something larger. But it never truly leaves the security of established documentary form. This requires a better organized, more fully-developed narrative line than what is presented.

In spite of its issues, Gurukulam is a vivid ethnographic investigation of an inherently curiosity-inspiring subject matter buttressed by outstanding cinematography and stellar sound editing. It is immersive, entertaining and pedagogical without being escapist or didactic.

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