(This article was originally published on 4 June 2022 and is being republished from The Quint’s archives.)
For over two decades now, since the release of a scandalous sex tape showing him in a compromising position with a woman 'devotee,' the story of self-proclaimed godman Nithyananda has been painted and re-painted with different strokes of emotion.
What began as indignation amongst the Hindu community at the actions of a supposed sanyasi (hermit who takes a vow of celibacy) turned into public anger and horror as charges of rape, sexual abuse, and physical torture of devotees came to fore.
But as the years went on, and he continued to avoid arrest, it was amusement over Nithyananda's antics that took centre stage as he craftily took to social media to create the image of a 'cool guru.'
It is this change of heart amongst the public that Discovery Plus's latest documentary My Daughter Joined a Cult attempts to repair through a three-part series released on Friday, 3 June.
Of all the ways in which this story can be told, the most effective narration will always remain watching it unfold from the eyes of his victims and their families. Because, while the world laughs at his latest internet parodies and narcissistic attempts to unravel the cosmos, these men and women continue to fight the irreversible damage that his 'cult' has wrought.
'Ask Them Where My Daughters Are!'
The documentary begins in 2019, as a desperate Janardan Sharma and his wife arrive at Nithyananda's ashram in Ahmedabad – desperate to find their two daughters who were brought here from Bengaluru without their knowledge.
Heart-piercing and desperate shrieks fill the screen as Sharma's wife breaks down, falling to the floor, begging for a chance to see his daughters. Ashram authorities refuse to even let them in.
"Please ask them. Ask them where my daughters are!" cries the wife to journalists there, who have just begun to unravel the devious schemes underway in this nondescript ashram.
To this family, ahead of the 'abduction,' Nithyananda was a guide, philosopher, and spiritual guru.
It was the father who took his two girls to meet the guru in 2014 – unaware of the intentions that lay behind the beatific smile Nithyananda offered. And till today, this family remains in search of their daughter and answers, as the rape accused allegedly fled the country in 2019, fearing arrest in a rape case.
This search for answers is the common thread that connects multiple victims of the rape-accused through this series.
Not The New-Age Guru That His PR Team Paints Him Out To Be
Jumping timelines constantly, the documentary shows a god-fearing Jhansi Rani boldly proclaiming Nithyananda as a fraud, while she breaks down over the death of her daughter, Sangeeta, under mysterious circumstances in the Bidadi ashram, in Karnataka, of the godman.
It explores the efforts of a former devotee Aarti Rao who was the first woman to accuse Nithyananda of rape. Her attempts to expose him led to her brutal character assassination and vilification at the hands of his disciples.
And this valour in coming out with the truth and continuing the fight against him is an important cornerstone of the documentary which reminds viewers that this man is not the comedian or the new-age guru that his PR team paints him out to be.
While very moving and well-depicted with visual references in the documentary, it is worth noting that these interviews have all been out in the public eye for over a decade now.
If you have followed the case closely, they do not offer new information on the activities in the ashram. So, it is the extended interviews with unnamed victims, former foreign devotees, and journalists that give viewers more insight into the workings of this self-proclaimed godman.
‘If We Don’t Do as He Tells Us, We Are Made To Seem Like a Raakshas'
The former head of Nithyananda's social media team, Sarah Landry, and another core member, Jordan Loazada, add depth to the documentary as they clearly demarcate when they went from thinking that they had chosen an alternate way of living to realising they had joined a cult.
Sarah, who was a well-recognised devotee of Nithyananda, explains how followers at the ashram did 'mental gymnastics' to actually disbelieve allegations against their guru, despite evidence starting them in the face.
From demanding nude selfies from her for her own 'personal development' to ordering she get thousands of registrations for his programmes, Sarah faced all forms of abuse before extracting herself from the situation.
Having headed the online slander campaigns against former devotees who spoke out, she now says she was "brainwashed" and programmed to believe her 'guru'.
"If we don't do as he tells us, we are made to seem like a raakshas (devil)."Sarah Landry
She also firmly points out that he was fully aware of how social media could be a tool to lift his image among the public – and gain more followers.
Several others who were interviewed also maintain that they do not understand why they stayed on after so many controversies erupted. Questions of why these devotees stayed have always plagued the general public – and the documentary answers this partly.
An interesting statement about this devotion is made by a former bureau chief of Deccan Chronicle, Bhagwan Singh, who says that he too felt there was something special about Nithyananda when he first met him.
For such a senior journalist to admit to being impressed by the self-proclaimed godman, explains in part why even educated men and women fell prey to his claims.
"Even intelligent people get influenced...They can't tell the difference between good and bad icons," admits Bhagwan Singh.
All the victims claim they were sucked in by his nature – playful, reassuring, and ready to fill a gap in their lives.
For one victim who was a child of divorce, he claimed he would be the missing parent and to Jordan, who lacked a father figure in his life, he offered to fill the role.
Powerful Benefactors and Supporters
The documentary gives you a glimpse of Nithyananda's modus operandi, but doesn't quite delve deeper into the psychology of this cult.
His narcissism, arrogance, and overconfidence is well captured through footage from his own social media channels, but while they mention that he has powerful benefactors and supporters, they do not go beyond the surface of this story line.
The manner in which the police in Ramnagar rushed to close the case of Sangeeta's death is one instance where his power is exposed.
Another is his 'escape' to Haridwar where The News Minute's Editor-in-chief Dhanya Rajendran, who was then in the employ of Times Now, managed to get his interview after the release of the sex tape.
How was a journalist able to track him down, when the police claimed they couldn't? The people who shielded him – from police to politicians – are not exposed.
"As a journalist, many times, I can't do anything about it. If I follow the norms of journalism and there is no evidence in front of me, it is only my mind and heart saying their story could be correct,” points out Dhanya, in the matter of Sangeeta's case being quickly buried.
"When these stories get reported quite a bit everything is stage managed in the beginning itself...The family is left with no evidence to back their claims."
To the documentary's credit, it does not take an 'Is he a godman? Is he a conman?' approach.
From the very beginning, it shows the trials the victims have been put through.
And if anyone doubted the allegations against Nithyananda before, it will be incredibly difficult to do so after watching Ajit Hanamakkanavar from Suvarna News interviews him on what happened at the Bidadi ashram in June 2012, when he attempted to give him the summons from an American court over allegations of having sodomised a disciple named Vinay Bharadwaj.
When one male devotee confronted Nithyananda, he claims in the documentary to have shared sexual relationships with his gurus, a thread from the storyline that begged further investigation.
While overall, the documentary makes a gripping watch that you will want to finish in one sitting, it would have been enriched if it gave us more details of his past and his rise to fame.
Nevertheless, the three-part series has masterfully detailed nearly every grave crime the self-proclaimed godman has ever been accused of. And the next time you come across a video of his performative side on social media, the documentary will ensure you do not hit the share button to further his agenda.
(The author is an award-winning documentary maker and journalist based in Tamil Nadu. She covers gender, crime, politics, environment, and cinema.)