Why I see a conman when I see a godman

Director of My Daughter Joined a Cult, Naman Saraiya on the making of the documentary

A still from the series

It took director Naman Saraiya over a year to make My Daughter Joined a Cult. The making of the three-episode docu-series on godman Nithyananda was no easy feat — from sifting through numerous hours of content, to interviewing survivors. The filmmaker says the arduous journey made him seek therapy. “My therapist was glad when she finally saw my documentary’s hoardings all over the city,” smiles Saraiya, as he gives a lowdown on all that went into the making of the discovery+ documentary that traces the rise and fall of the godman, and his alleged rape cases.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

How did you first learn about the self-proclaimed godman Nithyananda?
It was through the memes on the Internet. I remember being aware [of him] when the sex tape was leaked in 2010. I was in college then, and we [discussed] it during media ethics class. [The documentary] was not my idea. I was brought on board to steer this documentary through the studio, Vice. It was [at the] development and research [stage] when the show was picked up by the network. Then, I was presented with an overall idea and the show’s name. I am a big fan of personal narrative documentaries, but I couldn’t [employ] that here because I wasn’t a part of the ashram or the cult.

Self-proclaimed godman NithyanandaSelf-proclaimed godman Nithyananda

What was your first impression of him?
I am a fairly practical person. When I see [godmen, I believe] he will con somebody in the garb of religion and spirituality. But when you are making a film or a series, you have to shed your personal ideas and be objective. When you are speaking to an ex-devotee or a survivor, you cannot bring your own judgment of this man; you have to hear it from the person’s point of view. I remember having a conversation with an ex-devotee, who said so many people benefitted from his teachings and the social service he did for the villages around his ashram. I believe just because a man does good to 5000, doesn’t mean he has not affected 50 people. That harm caused to 50 people is greater than the benefit caused to 5,000. It’s good to be sceptical of anybody commodifying anything that shouldn’t be commodified.

Why do you think Indian authorities have not managed to catch up with him yet?
I feel there is some support [behind him], or how was he able to escape? There are many theories, and we have addressed them in the documentary. He escaped just before the rape trials were about to begin, [which indicates] he had prior information. He was charged between late 2010 and 2012 when Aarthi Rao came out and spoke on a television channel. It was incredibly brave of her. 

Naman Saraiya

Do you feel the authorities didn’t respond in time?
No, even if they did, it was probably a hand-in-glove situation. We heard crazy stories about how he was injecting himself with oestrogen to prove that his testosterone levels were low. You cannot publish it in the documentary because it needs to be verified by various sources. I cannot employ immoral tactics [to gain] information. There [was also the fear of] a defamation case on us. We had to tread carefully.

What were some of the challenges you faced while making this series?
Most documentaries on popular cults and serial killers are made when the person is caught, or dead. Then all records are made available, from the case files to court records. Here, while some cases were dismissed, the rape trial is pending because he has not shown up. The hullabaloo [about him going missing] started again in 2019 when Janardhan Sharma complained about how he was not allowed to meet his children [who were Nithyananda’s devotees]. This is what we began the documentary with.

I was on board the project since March-April last year. I had a solid team led by Sonakshi Pandit, who had earlier worked on several documentaries, including the Talwar documentary. Poorvi Priya, who has just graduated from TISS, helped with the archival research. My associate director Shashank Rajaram speaks Tamil, and we put together a team that spoke different languages. We spent the first three months researching and writing. The writing process helped us distill this vast volume of information — from his personality to his growth, from his crimes to his modus operandi. Navigating the legal loopholes in terms of what can and cannot be said was challenging.

Did you face any opposition from Nithyananda’s followers?
No. I don’t think they had any idea at all. That said, there have been ridiculous campaigns online since this documentary was launched. When [the platform] put up their first tweet [about the documentary], the usual trolling began. Many asked, why are you not making documentaries about other religions? But during the making, we kept a low profile and only spoke to people whom we could absolutely trust. Our net was cast wide — you may have seen 15 people on camera, but in actuality, we spoke to 30 people. [Nithyananda] is so twisted, he may be more than happy that there is a documentary about him.

If you could talk to Nithyananda, what would you ask him?
I would never talk to him. He is the kind of person who would perhaps  take the best parts of different sermons and make his own version of it. He had lost his way too soon. Power corrupts; the more followers you have, the more you get drunk on power. It would be impossible to have an [honest] conversation with him because such people would gaslight you. 

Finally, which theory do you believe — that he is raking in money by conducting online sessions with a chroma background, or that he has actually built a Kailasa?
He has escaped [from India] for sure. He had enough time and resources to get out, and enough people within his cult to make it happen. I don’t know how he is staying afloat. [With the help of] NRIs, I suppose. Considering the amount of gold reserve he has, I am sure he can get through another few years.

Originally published at www.mid-day.com

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