Eat Pray Love: The Challenge of Hinduism in Hollywood

Okay, I admit it: I never finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat Pray Love.

It wasn’t because I didn’t like it. I did like it. A lot.

It was just that her voice in the book reminded me so much of one of my highschool girlfriends’ –smart, funny and a little lusty– that I had to send her the copy I was reading, as a gift, right away. That, and also, I was reading it while leaning against a wall at Borders and chuckling conspicuously.

Hey, at least I ended up buying it.

And then, when the book became hugely popular and got Oprah’s endorsement, I lost the motivation to buy one for myself.  It became a trend. I guess I’ll spring for a used copy eventually.

Anyway, I only read as far as the Italy chapter, so I was eager to see how Elizabeth Gilbert and Plan B Productions dealt with India, and especially ashram life, in the film version.

In my experience, Hollywood’s track record with portraying India in general and Hinduism in specific has been mixed. In fact, South Asian cultures and religions have been the object of stereotyping, and even farce, in more productions than I care to recall.

Remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with its mysterious eyeball soup? And who could forget the Hare Krishna devotee who was assaulted in Airplane! ? More recently, Mike Myers’ The Love Guru used the principle tenet of Vedic dharma, guru-tattva, as its central gag.

I know, I know. All in good fun.

In defense of the film and television industry, I concede that South Asian culture is strange (to the West) and therefore offers a challenge to lazy screenwriters –and an easy target to humorists. And, to their credit, the few films that have risen to the challenge have been standouts: Gandhi, A Little Princess and Bee Season, among them.

Even Apu, the Quik-E Mart proprietor in The Simpsons, is okay by me because he’s such a blatant stereotype, it’s clear that the producers are making fun of the stereotype itself. He’s a cartoon, both literally and figuratively.

(Plus, what’s not to love about someone who peddles tofu hot dogs and keeps a tinsel-bedecked altar to Lord Ganesha in his back room? I mean, really.)

But even the fairest of portrayals can only hope to barely skim the surface of the vast Hindu diaspora. Such is the case with Eat Pray Love, which I’m adding to my short list of films in which Vedic culture is represented responsibly.

It is, after all, a movie about a woman in search of herself, not an in-depth expose on a particular branch of Vedic (Hindu) theology. That being said, what I saw was an accurate sketch of her personal experience in an adwaita vedanta ashram.

To be fair, this is not my school of Vedanta, and I would disagree respectfully that, “God is in us, as us,” as her character concluded –but that’s not really the point. There was plenty here for me to love.

I loved how the processes of kirtan (chanting), seva (service), mouna (silence), and guru-bhakti (devotion to guru) were included. And I loved that the art director clearly left some things as they were found –like the surplus building materials stacked on the roof, for example; a temple mainstay.

I found myself weeping at ridiculous moments, like during a wide shot of the street outside the temple. It was almost as though I could smell the dust kicked up by the cows and the incense wafting out from the windows.

What sets Eat Pray Love apart from so many other attempts to dramatize the Hindu experience is that it was adapted from memoir, not fiction, and that the filmmakers shot on location in an actual ashram, using plenty of real devotees as extras. It makes a big difference.

What was your experience? To my faithful readers, I offer my continued gratitude, and to those who may be visiting for the first time, I say heartfully,


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2 Responses to Eat Pray Love: The Challenge of Hinduism in Hollywood

  1. jenn says:

    I too had a similar experience (and have lived in ashram myself). I appreciated the films representation of ashram. Was wondering if they’d pull it off or bastardize.

    Its not the be all end all, send me to gushing… I took the movie for what it is , and was- one person’s experience, where she was at, at the time.
    I found value, inspiration and appreciation for her willingness to expose herself. I’m surprised by the intolerance aimed at her, the book, movie… I’ve seen bashers, even those who claim to be spiritual , or buddhist or …. I have to wonder why they feel so compelled to bash it, eh? Anything in our existence serves to teach us if we are open. We can all “enlighten up”, eh?

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