by Gargs Allard

Film Review: Hare Krishna! the Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started it All

4.5 out of 5 Stars

A handful of critics have panned Hare Krishna! for being no more than a marketing tool for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness [ISKCON], otherwise known as The Hare Krishna Movement.

And one may argue that its glaring fault is that it fails to examine the problems the movement has faced since its founder, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, left his physical body in late 1977. Problems like successor gurus, splinter groups, child protection failures, and policies on gender and sexual orientation issues, among others.

The film was written and directed by filmmakers John and Jean Griesser, devotees within ISKCON known as Yadubara das and Vishakha devi dasi, so one may further criticize that the movie is naturally biased as well.

Having said all of that, I think it is unfair to criticize the film or give it a poor rating on these basis, as Rotten Tomatoes so far has given it (17-percent approval by critics). Rotten Tomatoes, however, gives a film a 90-percent approval rating by the public and currently gives it a 10 out of 10 based on 82 ratings.

While the movement has experienced its fair share of growing pains since its incorporation 50 years ago, a 90-minute film can hardly capture its full story, and this film never really claims as much.

As a result, the movie concentrates on what its title implies: the personal struggles and accomplishments of Srila Prabhupada, and how the movement, from an historical perspective, has gained a foothold throughout the world in a relatively short period of time. Now the chanting of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” is a household mantra to many.

Moreover, documentaries are often inaccurate when those who were not involved in its history make them, just as much as documentaries may seem bias when made by those who were directly involved in its happenings.

So, in either case, one must make a mental adjustment when watching a documentary that falls into either category. It is something akin to reading an autobiography compared to a biography that is unauthorized, so to speak. They both have something to offer. But if you expect one, while watching or reading another, then you might feel duped.

If one sees this movie for what it is (and is advertised) – the story of the swami who started the Hare Krishna Movement against all odds – then it is an amazing account of spiritual purity, power and accomplishment. The non-devotee, however much he or she may or may not be turned off by Hare Krishna people, has to acknowledge there was certainly something that attracted its followers of the late sixties and early seventies. This film more than aptly shows what that was, or who it was – Srila Prabhupada.

This film is therefore more the biopic of Srila Prabhupada. The story of where he came from, how he was qualified, his earnest, humble and determined efforts, the obstacles he encountered, and his ultimate successes, which are in scope so large and at an age in life so late, that they objectively bewilder the human mind.

From Srila Prabhupada’s upbringing, to meeting his spiritual master and taking his instructions to heart to spread consciousness of Krishna throughout the West, the film successfully sets the tone of his preparation for being the founder and leader of the Hare Krishna Movement.

Hare Krishna! then again delivers by poignantly depicting his coming to America, and then establishing the Hare Krishna Movement from New York to San Francisco to Montreal to London, back to India and all to over the world (including behind the iron curtain). Without a doubt, this film documents well the Hare Krishna explosion of the late sixties and early seventies.

It also delves satisfyingly into Srila Prabhupada and his disciples influencing such iconic figures of the time like Allen Ginsberg, the Grateful Dead and the Beatles. A good chunk of the documentary is devoted to George Harrison’s role and participation in helping the movement take off in England and his spreading the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra all over the world with his music – as well as the special relationship Harrison had with the Krishna devotees and Srila Prabhupada.

It boggled the mind of Harrison and many prominent religious scholars how a man of 70 could leave a comfortable existence within an ancient culture in India, to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a cargo ship, endure heart attacks along the way, arrive in America with no money and somehow survive a winter alone in New York City, what to speak of thrive there, and start a worldwide movement while writing 100 books, many of them very large, and opening over 100 Krishna conscious temples, restaurants and farm communities worldwide – and all while circling the globe 12 times in about as many years.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the film, besides its subject matter, is the rare footage it uses to piece together its story. That and many of the movement’s longstanding disciples, who have been with the organization throughout its history, give the film a genuine feel of authenticity.

The film successfully conveys the obvious fact that Srila Prabhupada was a spiritually inspired holy man from a rich spiritual tradition from India, who was divinely empowered to carry an ancient but timeless and relevant spiritual message to the America of the sixties, but a message that was meant for all people of all times and that transcended nationality, gender, race, ethnicity, religion and even species.

Considering it won the Jury Award for Best Picture at the Illuminate Film Festival in Sedona demonstrates how Hare Krishna! resonates with spiritually inclined people. In fact, even LA Times critic, Michael Rechtshaffen, who cited the fact the film has no on-screen detractors, save and except a segment about the deprogramming crisis of the ’70s and ’80s, wrote, “Still, and it may just be the lighting, there’s no denying that the swami’s original American disciples, shown a half-century later and 40 years after the death of their leader, all seem to possess a palpable inner glow.”

What strikes me most about this film is that it captured Srila Prabhupada’s authentic humility in a way I have never seen before. As George Harrison once said, although he was a great scholar, he had absolutely no airs about him. He treated everyone like a dear friend, and said he was the servant of the servant of the servant of Krishna or God.

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