Until the World Laughs with God

Mike Myers's guru character has been in the works for years. "Guru Pitka" was part of an early draft for the script of his 1999 Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. At that early stage, Pitka had already made some major spiritual discoveries, including "NOWHERE = NOW HERE" and "When you 'assume,' you make an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me.'" Rather than the present bearded Maharishi look, photos from Vanity Fair in 1999 show Myers dolled up, long-tongued and painted red, like a monster-diety. According to an interview on a fan website that advertises itself as "100% real," Myers seems to have dropped the scene because of concern for controversy. "Guru Pitka was in some people eyes, racially disturbing," he explains. "It was a funny part, but it offended many Indians and I do not want a negative thing around Austin Powers."

In the decade since, Myers continued trying Pitka out in secret appearances at comedy clubs in New York. Rumors flew around the blogosphere. By 2006, he had adopted "Mariska Hargitay" as his solemn, faux-Sanskrit greeting, raising a chuckle for fans of the Law & Order actress. But not, to echo Myers's onetime concern, for "many Indians."

By March of this year, the internet lit up with protests. Word got out that Paramount bought into the idea and Guru Pitka was soon to have a movie of his own. Leading the charge was Rajan Zed, a Punjabi priest who rose to prominence as an organizer for the Hindu community in Reno, Nevada. In 2007, he became the first Hindu to deliver the opening prayers on the floor of the U.S. Senate, an historic moment interrupted by Christian hecklers. When he learned about the upcoming movie, Zed began circulating press releases condemning it in the name of his brand-new organization, the Universal Society of Hinduism. The Love Guru, he contended, "appears to be lampooning Hinduism and Hindus and using Hindu terms frivolously."

Early on, Zed was joined by other Hindu groups, including the right-wing Hindu Janjagruti Samiti ("Uniting Hindus globally") and the Spiritual Science Research Foundation ("Bridging the known and unknown worlds"). "It will hurt the religious sentiments of millions of Hindus worldwide, who hold the 'Guru-disciple' relationship as sacred," promised a joint press statement. The latter group has released a table meting out The Love Guru's divine consequences: "2nd region of Hell for 1000 years" for making the movie or 100 years in other hells for knowing about it but doing nothing to stop it. The former is a veteran defender of Hindu identity, having recently participated in a mob attack against a statue of M.F. Hussain, an Indian-Muslim artist. When asked about his relationship with them, Zed told Religion Dispatches, simply, "Universal Society of Hinduism and Hindu Janjagruti Samiti are two different organizations."

The Hindus were not alone. Daisy Khan, of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, declared, "I stand with many of my Hindu brothers and sisters. I will not watch this movie." A group of Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist clergy—mostly fellow Nevadans, initially—joined Rajan Zed in a letter titled "Clergy's appeal to Paramount Pictures." In it, they demanded that Paramount screen the movie for Hindu leaders, as was done for Jewish leaders amidst concerns that Mel Gibson's The Passion would be offensive to Jews. While Paramount promised a pre-release screening back in March, the studio never followed up. As the movement gained momentum, other groups joined in, including the U.S. Catholic bishops.

When it was clear that the screening wouldn't happen, Zed took another approach. He put out a press statement demanding an NC-17 rating for the movie.

All along, however, there has been at least one loyal supporter of The Love Guru: none other than Pitka's nemesis, Deepak Chopra, the bestselling spiritual-but-not-religious self-help author. He appears briefly in the movie. "No one is more thoroughly skewered in it than I am," Chopra claimed in Time. He attributes to Myers "the most profound understanding of Eastern wisdom, traditions and spirituality," and beneath all the lampooning, "on a deeper level, it's a tribute." Chopra goes on to label Zed's protest as "a cry for importance" and "a sign of deep insecurity." Even his son, Gotham Chopra, has declared his allegiance to Pitka.

The same month as The Love Guru's release, Chopra came out with a book of his own, Why Is God Laughing? The Path to Joy and Spiritual Optimism. It features a two-page foreword by Mike Myers (to whom it is dedicated), though without any mention of the movie. What follows means to testify to the spirituality of humor in the form of a story and a list of tips for living. Because "what is true in the material world is false in God's world, and vice versa," worldly troubles can be answered with laughter. In it, a mysterious voice tells us, "I'm not fooling. Until the world laughs with God, nothing's going to change." By fact of juxtaposition, if nothing else, Chopra's book seems poised as an explanation and a defense of Myers's movie.

Their connections go even deeper. Why Is God Laughing? tells the story of a fictional L.A. comedian named Mickey Fellows. Looking for meaning in life, he encounters Francisco, "a tall, olive-skinned man" who helps him use laughter as a vehicle for healing. As it happens, some fifteen years ago, Mike ("Mickey"?) Myers was going through dire straits of his own when he discovered Chopra's books and videos. He invented the Guru Pitka character by combining Chopra's accent with Austin Powers's libido. Pitka became part of his own road to wellness.

In the movie itself, which came to theaters on June 20th, Pitka has a different origin story. The orphan child of American missionaries, he was raised under the tutelage of Ben Kingsley's Guru Tugginmypudha, who locks the sex-obsessed Pitka in a chastity belt until he can learn to love himself. Fast forward to grown-up Guru Pitka, proprietor of a sparkling ashram in the Hollywood hills. Bringing the hockey schtick back out of Myers's Wayne's World-era dustbin, a Canadian hockey team asks Pitka to save their star player from the romantic self-doubt that makes him tremble in his skates. Success means two million dollars and an appearance on Oprah, thus offering Pitka a chance at his dream of being the next Deepak Chopra. Jessica Alba plays the vacuous blonde love interest.

From there, the movie goes through a sequence of tedious innuendoes and one-liners that could have come, like Pitka himself, from the Austin Powers reject pile. There are no surprises. Mini-me, the diminutive villian, is back and pretty much the same. Elephants copulate. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott declared that "The Love Guru is downright antifunny, an experience that makes you wonder if you will ever laugh again." Despite whatever free publicity that the controversy gave it, the movie's opening weekend grossed just $14 million, a fifth of what the last Austin Powers pulled in. According to Rajan Zed, in fact, the boycott that he led was "one of the major factors" in the box office flop.

Whatever irrelevance this poor showing has left it with, The Love Guru joins the 2005 Danish Mohammed cartoon incident, along with Monty Python's 1979 The Life of Brian, in the tradition of religious outrage at parody. The cartoons, of course, led to mass demonstrations and boycotts of Danish products in the Middle East, while The Life of Brian was, for a time, banned by jurisdictions in the United States and Britain for poking fun at the Gospels. The 1999 Kevin Smith movie, Dogma, only partly dulled the anger of Catholics by pointing out that "even God has a sense of humor" in an opening disclaimer.

The claim of the outraged, which has often become cause for rare interreligious agreement, is that religion is too serious a business for comedy. In response, secularists and free-speechers make a point of saying their piece all the more loudly. But Mike Myers has done no such thing. His insistence on bringing out the decade-old Guru Pitka character seems to come more from writers' block than principle.

Meanwhile, Rajan Zed and company raise the question of whether we are witnessing the rise of a new, global, internet-savvy Hindu anger-class—a vocal minority willing to take every pretense as an opportunity for divinely-inspired outrage. Such cliques have already come to dominate the public faces of Islam and evangelical Christianity, ensuring that media coverage of these religions makes them appear universally devoted to effigy-burning and death-threatening. So far, Hindu extremism has been confined to the context of Indian politics, rarely extending into the vast diaspora. As meta-journalists like Jeff Sharlet and Diane Winston have argued, we have to beware of the temptation to fuel bigotry by only looking at cultural and religious traditions of others at their angriest, strangest, and most reactionary.

But, when one actually sits though Myers's movie, it is hard not to side with Zed and company. One point that graces his awkwardly-phrased press releases is that most Americans are dangerously ignorant of Hinduism. Cinema is "a powerful medium" that "can create stereotypes in the minds of some audiences." For many Americans, The Love Guru is their only exposure to anything like Hinduism, leaving only the impression of slapstick idiocy. Zed explains, "The broader aim of worldwide Hindu protests against The Love Guru movie is to protect the interests of various minorities and ethnicities of the world and save them from future ridicule. Everyone is a minority in some place and in some sense in this world and deserves to be respected." In response, Paramount has made the fascinating claim that the film depicts a "purely fictional faith."

Perhaps the movie's worst crime, though, is its unfunniness. A better one, even if it poked fun, might inspire people to explore further and learn more about Indian religious traditions—in their tremendous variety—for themselves. Or even to think critically about the traditions' excesses both in Indian and Western incarnations. Real humor, funny humor, inevitably does contain truth, and with it, a kind of tribute. It unlocks the powerful longings and tensions bound up in what is being laughed at.