Entertainment

Doc raises sexual misconduct allegations against Bikram yoga founder

The Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, is following the lead of several recent films in its attempt to spark calls to action and bring a high-profile figure accused of sexual misconduct to justice.

Spokesperson tells CBC News Choudhury wants to 'move on'; filmmaker says he should 'face the music'

The Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, examines the rise and downfall of Bikram Choudhury, who introduced hot yoga to North America and fled the U.S. after being accused of assaulting many female students. (TIFF)

The Netflix documentary, Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator, is following the lead of several recent films in its attempt to spark calls to action and bring attention to a high-profile figure accused of sexual misconduct.

"If there's a way for the law to catch up with Bikram, I think that's the aim of this," Australian filmmaker Eva Orner told CBC News during a sit-down interview in Toronto. "I mean, he should come back to America, and he should face the music."

Bikram Choudhury, who founded an empire based on the practice of hot yoga, is currently in Mexico and continues to offer training sessions and travel around the world, according to his U.K. representative. The 90-minute proprietary Bikram yoga routine consists of 26 poses performed in a room with a temperature of about 40 degrees Celsius.

The documentary chronicles the rise of hot yoga — which many in the film argue has helped cure both physical and mental ailments — in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Choudhury created a string of studios and franchises, keeping tight control of his methods. He was known for sporting a black Speedo in class and a Rolex watch. Photos show he was embraced by celebrities, including Shirley MacLaine, Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.

"I felt so instantly connected to this person," former yoga teacher Sarah Baughn, who says she once suffered from scoliosis, said in the film.

"I wanted to be a teacher so badly and I wanted to be a good teacher so badly ... We grew to understand that the only way that you could be a good teacher was through him."

Teacher training can cost thousands of dollars but is the only way to become certified in the specialized routine. The certification has to be renewed every three years.

Accusations of sexual misconduct

"I came back over and over again [to his training] expecting different results," Baughn says in the film. "And I know that's the definition of an idiot." 

Baughn is one of several women to come forward in the film and accuse Choudhury of sexual misconduct. She eventually settled out of court.

Another woman interviewed in the film, Larissa Anderson, has accused Choudhury of rape. He denies all allegations against him. 

Many studios around the world, including this one in Los Angeles, still hold the Bikram name despite Chaudhury's guilt in civil court. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Through striking class footage (Orner didn't disclose how she obtained them), archives, interviews and court documents, the film depicts Choudhury as a megalomaniac who preyed on women while conducting his famous teacher training. It also explores the magnetism that drew people in.

Fled the U.S. after lawsuit

Choudhury fled the U.S. and remains at large after he was ordered to pay nearly $7.5 million US in damages following a lawsuit by his former legal adviser, who argued she was wrongfully dismissed after refusing to cover up allegations against him.

"Bikram is contemplating his next move," Richard J Hillgrove, founder of 6 Hillgrove Public Relations, Choudhury's U.K.-based public relations spokesperson, told CBC News in a Skype interview from London. 

"He doesn't feel that going through the exhaustive process of suing Netflix is something he potentially wants to do. He feels like he wants to turn the other cheek and move on with his life."

Richard Hillgrove, at right, seen with actress Rose McGowan and Wikileaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson, says he represented McGowan for 8 months in the height of #metoo prior to Harvey Weinstein's arrest. He's now a spokesperson for Bikram Choudhury. (Richard Hillgrove)

Dozens of North American studios still operate under Bikram's name, but Hillgrove says Choudhury is in the middle of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and cannot operate a business himself. Hillgrove said third parties are organizing different events on his behalf.

He has a residence in India and will be doing a "legacy tour" next year. Hillgrove says Choudhury isn't opposed to returning to the U.S. in 2020.

He doesn't believe that he has done anything wrong and he's been very unfairly treated.- PR rep Richard Hillgrove, on his client Bikram Choudhury

"Mr. Choudhury has not been charged criminally whatsoever, it's a civil court," said Hillgrove. "He doesn't believe that he has done anything wrong and he's been very unfairly treated."

Orner says she wants to see action taken against the yoga guru.

"I would hope that California actually, that the governor does something to potentially start criminal proceedings against him because there are six women that have said that he raped or sexually abused them," said Orner, who won an Academy Award in 2008 for the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about an Afghan cab driver beaten to death by American soldiers.

The L.A. county district attorney's office says a case was brought forward in 2013, but didn't proceed because of insufficient evidence. Orner says, since the film's premiere at TIFF, other women have contacted her with their own allegations of abuse at the hands of Choudhury.

Recent films calling for justice

A number of recent films have mobilized calls for change after visceral reactions from viewers.

A month after the January broadcast of Surviving R. Kelly, a six-part Lifetime documentary detailing allegations of sexual abuse against R. Kelly, the musician was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

Activists ignited a social media movement using the hashtag #MuteRKelly, calling on streaming services to drop Kelly's music and promoters not to book any more concerts. R. Kelly has denied the claims and pleaded not guilty.

Demonstrators gathered near the studio of singer R. Kelly to call for a boycott of his music after allegations of sexual abuse against young girls were raised on the highly-rated Lifetime mini-series Surviving R. Kelly in January. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Lady Gaga and Céline Dion were among singers who removed their duets with him from streaming services and he was dropped from his record label.

The Netflix limited series When They See Us, based on the wrongful rape and assault convictions of five boys in New York City in the 1990s known as the Central Park Five (now referred to as the Exonerated Five), forced the resignation earlier this year of then-prosecutor Linda Fairstein from a number of boards.

Fairstein's book publisher also dropped her following the backlash, after the Ava DuVernay-directed historical drama was released.

The Netflix limited series When They See Us, which chronicled the wrongful convictions of five boys of colour in the infamous Central Park Five case, led to the resignation of then-prosecutor Linda Fairstein from several boards. (Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix)

HBO's 2015 documentary The Jinx, about murder accusations against New York real estate heir Robert Durst, gained widespread attention with its perceived "gotcha" moment at the end of the miniseries. Durst appeared to admit to his crimes while alone, unaware his microphone was still on.

"What the hell did I do?" He said to himself in the final moments of the film. "Killed them all, of course."

Police arrested Durst on first-degree murder charges a month after the first episode aired.

And Wild Wild Country, a Netflix doc about controversial Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, is now being developed into a film by Quantico alum and Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra. The film followed a group of Rajneesh devotees in the 1980s U.S. who were accused of being a cult partly because of their efforts to take over a small Oregon town.

Bhagwan Rajneesh, also known as Osho, is seen surrounded by his followers in a scene from the Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country. It is in the process of being developed into a feature film. (Netflix)

While the documentary on Bikram has been what Hillgrove said was "a technical disaster for him," he adds that it's also prompted more inquiries about his specialized form of exercise.

It had an interesting, you could say, polarizing effect, but as many people are criticizing it, it's actually creating a new audience for Bikram," said Hillgrove.

With files from Alice Hopton

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