Pray, It’s ‘Juliaji’

Rishi Majumder sneaks into the Eat, Pray, Love sets at Hari Mandir Ashram, Pataudi, to find ashramites and a desi cool Julia Roberts living the ‘the world’s a family’ maxim

Swami Dharam Dev and Julia Roberts

Hollywood Superstar Julia Roberts’ helicopter, landing near Hari Mandir Ashram, Pataudi, has kicked off quite the Haryanvi dust storm. She’s playing Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, a bestselling memoir where Gilberts eats in Italy, prays in India and loves in Bali. The controversies are: Does Roberts really have a gun toting battalion guarding her? Why did the ashram shoo away devotees during Navratri? And imperatively: Will this film misrepresent our great nation in any way?

Film crew have been quoted saying “media access is being denied because the film’s scheduled for release in 2011 and it’s too early to let out what’s in it”. Let out what’s in it? They’re filming an autobiographical bestseller for God’s sake (whatever He has to say about this). Not only do millions of readers know what’s in it, those who’ve seen Gilbert’s interviews know what’s after it too.  A more plausible reason is that they’re filming these serene spiritual sequences, and they don’t want journalists turning it into a reality show. “I’m obviously not a journalist (or not obviously a journalist),” is what I tell the three (apparently unarmed) guards at the ashram gate. They don’t look like ex- NSG or SPG forces (as was the scoop). More like ex- akhada pehelwaans (mud-pit wrestlers). Maybe the commandoes are camouflaged. Still, I can’t carry a camera. Shoot!

Swami Dharam Dev, Ashram President, is no stranger to celebrity. He ran for the Lok Sabha in 2004, and continues to mix with politicians and media-men, and now film stars. “We didn’t deny devotees, or the press, entry,” he argues. “We simply said that they should inform us from beforehand, so a tour can be organized systematically. And no cameras allowed. I asked the crew to shoot during Navratri because that’s when ashram students have holidays.” The Swami quotes classic Sanskrit diktat ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ (meaning ‘the world’s a family’) and tells me we should trust Westerners to spread what is Indian. He also cites Max Muller as a glowing example of how responsibly a foreigner can document native culture. His final argument for allowing the film crew in is: “No ‘ashram’ can refuse anyone ‘ashray’, or shelter”. He says many had advised him to ask for more than the Rs 4 lakh donation received, but he didn’t. Mid-conversation, he looks beyond me to murmur, “Juliaji…”

I miss her at first, because she has a slight, if tall, frame (or maybe that’s what days of sanyas does to you). She’s wearing a pale salwaar kameez and is almost merging into people she’s with. Until, a little girl runs up to her, and she grins. More Big Miss Sunshine than Monalisa Smile. You realize in a Pataudi ashram what makes Pretty Woman work worldwide. ‘Vasudev Kutumbakam’ it is…

“She loves talking to children,” the Swami’s grinning too. “Not grown-ups though.” Sure. I wasn’t going to run up to her. Then the Swami tells me how he gave Robert’s kids their Hindu names. The eldest son was named Ganesh – because that’s who every Hindu prayer begins with, and his twin sister Lakshmi – because Diwali’s coming up. And her youngest son Krishna, because, “like Bal Krishna, he was being naughty and not letting me tie the mauli (sacred thread) on his hand.” Sweet. Maybe if husband Daniel Moder came in and threw a fit, he’d name him Mahadev.

I go off alone around the ashram and film set. It’s impossible to tell them apart. What seems like a part of the ashram’s first floor, for instance, is a set made entirely of plywood – and you won’t know it till you knock on the walls. I bump into the Swami here, and he shows me a room that’s supposed to be Gilbert’s. Peering into this room is positively haunting. There’s a bed, a bed-side table, shelves, clothes strewn around and lots of dusty books. So, I’m in a real ashram, with a real Swami, peeping into the room of a real Gilbert – that’s actually unreal. It confounds the Swami too. He’s refused to act in the film, but keeps catching Swamis dressed like him to ask them if they’re for real or reel.

I walk out, past actor Richard Jenkins (whose character is called Richard too, the only real name Gilbert’s used in the Indian section – the others are pseudonyms) and the room where Roberts (Yes! The real Roberts!) is resting before her shoot, to a magnificent meditation hall that is definitely a set. It’s ornately carved, out of wood. I ask an ashram helper if the floor is a part of the set too. He replies in the affirmative and thumps his feet on ply to prove what he’s saying, adding: “This was actually a parking lot.” To my left is a library with portraits of Hindu Gurus on the walls, with the shelves and books in disarray because it’s been shot in. Ahead is a pleasant little garden – also made for the movie. I walk back, past the ashram office where Roberts has just shot a scene. A crew member is telling director Ryan Murphy about the “real feel” the office gave. So I guess it isn’t a set. I’m very paranoid by now and I go about the ashram tapping on walls and thumping my feet. Yes. Now I know why they wouldn’t let the press in.

I spot the Swami again and follow him to the temple terrace, where they’re shooting. The crew’s put up a temple façade that’s carved just like the meditation hall. The design is typical of South Indian temple architecture, which stands to reason. The founder of Gilbert’s ashram (located in Ganeshpuri, Thane) was from South India. The Swami sees me and leads me to a verandah: “We use this as prayer hall balcony. But I don’t know what they’re doing.” “They” are two American film crew members who’re watching a monitor to figure out scene picture quality. All they can see on their screen is a dark short haired guy, and a bearded Swami. Unreal.

Meanwhile, I hear gasps because Roberts is striding out in this gorgeous cream and green saree. She seems extremely comfortable in it, like Nalli LA just found a brand ambassador. Some locals exclaim at how Indian she’s become. Others comment on how well she’s handling the Haryana heat (…literally speaking). The ‘Indian Julia’ euphoria has erupted world over, including in its fold Nevada based ‘Hindu statesman’ Rajan Zed. They don’t seem to get that Roberts is an actress, who stays with her role while filming it sometimes. That Eat Pray Love won’t make her any more Indian, than Erin Brockovich or Sleeping WithThe Enemy made her an activist or member of a battered wives club.

Trudging towards the temple entrance, I’m shushed by frantic crew because a shot is on. I see on a monitor an intimate conversation scene between Roberts and Jenkins being filmed live. Just like HBO. Only, if I yell, they’ll have to pause.

The temple that Roberts (playing Gilbert) swept the floors of has the “real feel” that differentiates a place of meditation from a parking lot – without having to knock or thump. Beyond it is an elegant tower erected in honour of the ashram’s founder Swami Amar Dev. Gilbert climbs such a tower in one of the book’s most passionate climactic chapters.

Next to the tower is a Peepal tree that Roberts meditated under this morning for a shoot. When someone said this to the Swami, he looked puzzled. Then he said , “Oh! You mean in the naatak (play)…” That’s what he calls the film. He kept telling me the ashram students enjoyed the Ram Leela more.

This article appeared originally in Mumbai Mirror( http://alturl.com/egvq). It was also carried in Pune Mirror – front page (http://alturl.com/mrkd), Ahmedabad Mirror (http://alturl.com/ckwm), Bangalore Mirror (http://alturl.com/apyb) and the Times Of India entertainment section (http://alturl.com/6wgc) online…

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