Category Archives: Movies

The Truman Show (1998)

Director – Peter Weir

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This movie is the mother of all reality shows on television. It takes the idea of Big Brother or Big Boss wherein participants are closeted in a house for 3 months, and extends it to the whole life of one individual.

Truman is born and grown-up on the sets of the reality show. A whole city is constructed as the set complete with neighbors, offices, and the beach. Everything including the weather is simulated. Except Truman, everyone else is an actor. The filming is done through hidden cameras and the show is televised round the clock to the world. Everything is fine until Truman finds some inconsistency about things happening to him and decides to investigate.

Now in the spiritual tradition, the world we live in is also a sort of a self-created reality show which sustains itself. Everyone is already hypnotized into believing what his identity is, based on which he or she lives. However, there are some individuals who find inconsistencies in the worldly affairs and decide to investigate the true meaning of life and become spiritual seekers.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Director – Stanley Kubrik

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This is a film that stays in your mind for a long time. You cannot forget the raw imagery in this film. And the super performance by Malcolm McDowell. The film contains depiction of violence and nudity so naturally it is meant for a mature audience.

The Clockwork Orange is not about entertainment but is a thought provoking take on techniques of preventing violent behavior. The story is about Alex DeLarge, a gang leader who engages in fights, rapes, robberies and senseless violence.

He is caught by the police during one of his raids and sentenced to prison.

After a couple of years in the prison, the authorities are looking for a volunteer for the Ludovico technique, a procedure for curing violence in a person. Alex volunteers for it.

The technique involves tying up the person so that he cannot move and forcibly keeping his eyes open with instruments. He is then shown violent movies, scenes of crimes being performed, and extreme violence. Initially, Alex enjoys this but after some time aversion starts to build up. The problem is he cannot end this, he is forced to watch it because his eyelid are kept open.

After two weeks he is ‘cured’. In a demonstration of the cure, he is shown to be incapable of fighting even when provoked and convulses at the sight of a topless woman.

A Clockwork Orange is based on a 1962 satirical novel by the same name written by Anthony Burgess. The idea is similar to George Orwell’s 1984 in which the authorities are trying to control humans and making them mechanical gadgets (clockwork) in skin and flesh (orange).

The central question is whether violent behavior can be cured with external techniques. One of the reasons for putting people in prison is that they should be punished and as a result should realize their wrong doing, repent and become better citizens, apart from keeping them away from ‘civilized’ society to prevent further violence.

But the film tries to point out that criminals are only an extreme form of the basic nature of society which is violence.

I am reminded of a documentary “Doing Time, Doing Vipasana – Meditation in Indian Prisons” which deals with this issue of change of heart in prisoners happening from within rather than through punishment and the time spent in prison. It shows how Kiran Bedi, India’s first woman IPS officer introduced the ancient Vipasana meditation practice in Tihar jail with amazing results.

Siddhartha (1972)

Director – Conrad Rooks

 

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The film is a masterful adaptation of the novel written by Hermann Hesse and is considered to be one of the spiritual classics – one man’s search for the meaning of life. If you have liked the book, you will definitely love this movie.

Set in the time of the Buddha i.e. 2500 years ago, the movie tells the story of Siddhartha, the contemplative son of a priest, who wants to become a sadhu. The spiritual search leads him to spend time with wandering ascetics, learn the wisdom of the Buddha, indulge in sensual pleasures, experience success in business, and even become a father.

When he realizes that he has lost the real goal, he walks away from everything and happens to meet a ferryman who teaches him how to learn from the river. Eventually, Siddhartha becomes enlightened and attains happiness.

I found reading the book to be a more engaging experience as one could read the thoughts that went through Siddhartha’s mind. The movie cannot bridge this gap because everything cannot be verbalized. Despite this, the movie is one of my favorites. The background songs pierce deep into the heart.

I see Siddhartha as a timeless allegory for a spiritual seeker. At any age, in any part of the world, there is pain and suffering in every human activity – be it the striving for material pleasures or the spiritual search. Enlightenment is only to be discovered every moment with the realization of the emptiness of knowledge and desires.

Spirituality in Films: A Sublime Combination

Films with a spiritual theme not only carry a spiritual message but are also tremendously entertaining and sometimes full of humor

​Films are made for entertainment. We all love to watch the characters, their stories, and their situation in the film. Many people would go to the films only to watch their favorite actor. Some are attracted to action movies while some are attracted to drama and some to comedy. Films become trendsetters for fashion. They also shape attitudes of the masses. And some films also pass on a spiritual message. Spiritual films are not films about spiritual masters like Jesus or the Buddha but about the teachings in real life.

Spiritual Films that Draw on Allegories and Symbolism

Some of the best spiritual films are based on extensive symbolism. There is a meaning to the names of the characters and a meaning to the actions and storyline which is akin to a spiritual search. Some of the best spiritual films of this type are The Matrix (Directed by the Wachowski Brothers in 1999) and The Holy Mountain (Directed by Alejandro Jodorowski in 1973).

Spiritual Films Adapted from Novels

A few of the spiritual classics have been made into movies which not only bring to life the characters in the story but also engulf the viewer in its message. These movies are best watched after reading the novel. Some of the most excellent spiritual films adapted from novels are Siddhartha (Directed by Conrad Rooks in 1972 based on the novel by Hermann Hesse) and The Razor’s Edge (Directed by John Byrum in 1984 based on the novel by Somerset Maugham)

Spiritual Films that Walk the Talk

There are some films which not only entertain or simply pass on a spiritual message through symbolism but also make you sit up and reflect on one’s position in life. These films have the potential to become a life changing event if the viewer has a spiritual inclination. The finest spiritual films of this type are The Truman Show (Directed by Peter Weir in 1998) and The Peaceful Warrior (Directed by Victor Salva in 2006).

Spiritual Films that cannot be Categorized

There are some films which are so extraordinarily beautiful that they cannot be classified in to any stereotype. These are the rarest of the rare films watching which is like having a spiritual experience. A couple of such unparalleled films are Waking Life (Directed by Richard Linklater in 2001) and Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (Directed by Yong-Kun Bae in 1989).

Watching spiritual films is a special treat because it combines entertainment and insight, not to forget humor as in I Heart Huckabees (Directed by David O. Russell in 2004)

Why Has Bodhidharma Left For The East? (1989)

Director – Yong Kun-Bae

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Bodhidharma was a 6th century Buddhist monk from India who is generally credited for introducing Buddhism to China. The question “Why has Bodhidharma left for the east?” is a famous koan or riddle, the purpose of which is to free the student of attachment to conceptual thinking. This movie, however, has nothing to do with either Bodhidharma or koans. But is is an apt title for this meditative and quiet film.

​The movie is set in the Korean mountains wherein a Zen master lives alone with an orphan boy. A young monk who has left the city life with his old mother and responsibilities in search of enlightenment is staying with the ailing Zen master. The movie deals with the perennial issues of man – sorrow, peace, desires, responsibilities, and death. There are very few dialogues in the movie but it still communicates a lot. The film shows a sharp contrast between the life of the city and the life in the forest. The story moves at a slow pace allowing one to absorb the happenings on the screen – the mountains, the stream, the trees, the antics of the boy, and the inescapable fact of life i.e. death.

The Razor’s Edge (1984)

Director – John Byrum

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The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to salvation is hard. – Katha Upanishad

​This is the epigraph of Somerset Maugham’s 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge. The film is an adaptation of this story.

A World War I fighter pilot Larry is disillusioned with his war experiences. He decides that he wants to search for the meaning of life. His fiancée refuses to stay with him and instead marries a rich man. Larry then moves through Europe staying in Paris for sometime, working in a coal mine for some time and eventually reaching India. His adventures bring him to Ladakh where he finally achieves enlightenment.

​Throughout the film, Larry’s non-conformist behavior and thoughts are contrasted with the conformist views of Elliot Templeton, his fiancee’s uncle. Larry is going against the stream of the society and dares to live his life with the ultimate happiness of enlightened activity while Elliot always talks about happiness derived from conforming to society’s demands.

The Holy Mountain (1973)

Director – Alejandro Jodorowsky

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This is an allegorical film which depicts the process of spiritual search. It is based on Rene Daumal’s unfinished book ‘Mount Analogue’ and St. John of the Cross’s ‘The Ascent of Mt. Carmel’. The Holy Mountain is a difficult film since it is full of Christian symbolism which makes it incomprehensible in one viewing. Moreover, the film is not meant for sensitive eyes since it depicts male and female nudity, graphic scenes of animal slaughter and crude violence.

The spiritual path has always eluded description by either words or images. Therefore, symbols have been used by teachers or guides to direct the seeker on the right path. For instance Alchemy – the process of converting base metals to gold stands for the possibility of the transformation of man. The search for the ultimate is likened to a climb to the summit of a mountain overcoming various inner obstacles.

​The film uses these metaphors throughout. In brief, the storyline is of a thief who meets an Alchemist who along with seven other characters go in search of the masters residing on the holy mountain.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)

Director – Ki-duk Kim

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This is a beautiful Korean film (2003) that captures your imagination with its heavenly scenery. The whole story is shot in a hut floating in a serene lake surrounded by tall mountains.

An old Buddhist monk lives in the hut with a mischievous young boy – one who ties stones to frogs, snakes and fish with a thread and enjoys their predicament. The master teaches him a lesson one day by tying a big stone to his back. (Spring)

When the boy grows up, he gets attracted to a young girl who had come to stay with them to heal herself. When the master discovers their liaison, he asks the girl to return. However, the boy misses her so much that he runs away in search of her.(Summer)

Many years later, he returns to the hut a dangerous criminal. The police soon catch up with him and take him away. (Fall)

The master dies. Winter sets in. The lake is frozen completely. The prisoner has completed his sentence and returns to the hut, a changed man. He puts the hut back in order and trains himself. One day, a woman abandons her baby at the hut.

When the baby grows up into a young boy, he is shown to torment snakes, frogs and fish by putting stones in their mouth. (Spring)

In most films, there is an ending – a resolution of the tensions that are built up during the story telling. However, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a true buddhist movie as it does not have an ending because the ending is simply another beginning.

Like the seasons, our life moves through stages and almost everyone experiences the same emotions, childhood antics, sexual attraction, agony of separation, anger, and repentance of actions. Life is a powerful stream through which we flow and experience different things just like changing of the seasons.

There is another Korean film which I find to be very similar in theme – Why did Bodhidharma come to the east?

I Love Huckabees (2004)

Director – David O. Russell

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Also known as I Heart Huckabees, this is as lovely and humorous a movie as it can get. Have you ever pondered over questions such as who you are, what is your purpose and what is the meaning of life? Even if you have, you would not have probed deeper because of urgent matters taking your attention. But what if you could hire detectives to do this job for you! The idea itself is so ridiculous that makes one laugh. But that exactly is the story of this movie.

A husband and wife play the detectives who are available on hire to find out the meaning of your life. These detectives are not saffron clad sages but suit-wearing professionals who work for a fee. The detectives have a brand of existential philosophy which they use to investigate matters. As they help their client, they run against one of their former students who has now adopted the opposite brand of philosophy Nihilism to help her clients.

​It is a great treat to watch the characters as they try to figure out the confusion, discontent and angst in their lives with the help of these philosophies. The movie is a laugh riot if you are even a little bit interested in philosophy.

Travelers and Magicians (2003)

Director – Khyentse Norbu

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This is a simple movie shot in the picturesque country of Bhutan against the backdrop of the great Himalayas. It tells the story of a Bhutanese government officer who desperately wants to go to America – his land of dreams. He starts his journey from his remote village and on the way encounters an apple seller, a monk, and a merchant with his young daughter. As they have missed the bus, they hitch hike their way to the city.

To pass time, the monk tells a story of a young man who is similarly enchanted with dreams. Wanting to learn magic, he leaves home and reaches a lonely hut in the forest occupied by an old man with a young and attractive wife. Staying with them, the young man forgets about his dreams and falls in love with the wife of the old man. The story then takes a sinister turn with the young man realizing the danger in to which he had run into.

In the meanwhile, the officer takes a liking to the daughter of the merchant and is having second thoughts about going to America. All the while the monk is amused with the effect his story has on the officer who is impatient at one moment, irritable at another and chivalrous at yet another moment.

​Followers of Buddhism will love this movie, not because one of the central characters is a Buddhist monk, but because the story depicts vividly how desires drive and change man from moment to moment.