Weekend Binge: 6 films about creepy cults that Gurmeet Ram Rahim should be made to watch in jail
With the arrest, conviction and sentencing of Dera Sacha Sauda leader Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, let’s take a look at cinema’s most flamboyant cult leaders - from Charles Manson to Jim Jones.Updated: Sep 02, 2017 09:39 IST
Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.
While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events - it could be the release of a new movie, or show - we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.
After the tumultuous events of last week, when violence broke out after self-styled ‘godman’ (and self-anointed saint) Gurmeet Ram Rahim, was convicted of raping two of his followers (in a 15-year-old case) we began this week with a follow-up to the story. A special judge sentenced the leader of the controversial cult Dera Sacha Sauda to 20 years in prison, a landmark judgment met with both protest and celebration - which is, we suppose, just the sort of polarised reaction Gurmeet attracts.
Blind faith, hidden wealth, and secret lairs - these are just a few of the things that unite the flamboyant men (and one woman) featured in this week’s list. They’re cult leaders, both fictional and based on real people. Some, you might have heard of - it’s difficult to not be aware of the Manson Family - but there are others whose legends are perhaps more well known than the larger-than-life people behind them.
In any case, they’re all very interesting people. How they command the devotion of their followers; the promises they make - both spiritual and monetary; the rituals they practice - these are all mysteries the films on our list try and get to the bottom of. The upside: Most of these weirdos got what they deserved in the end. Like Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.
Martha Marcy May Marlene
Perhaps the most low-key film on this list. Okay, maybe not. Maybe the most low-key - certainly the strangest - film on this list is the next one. But more on that in a moment. Martha Marcy May Marlene is, more accurately, the most serene. And at the centre of this seemingly calm exterior, is a fiery performance by John Hawkes, whose mysterious, abusive cult of female followers must deal with a runaway, played by debutante Elizabeth Olsen. This is her story, when she returns to the real world, with only hazy memories and trauma.
Sound of My Voice
This is my favourite of the lot. Like almost everything touched by the genius Brit Marling, it’s pure gold. And unlike the other movies here, the cult leader in it is a woman. What’s more: She’s the most sympathetic character in the film. When two scheming reporters try to infiltrate her ‘cult’ - you can’t even call it that with conviction - they learn that they’ve possibly bitten off more than they can chew. The themes Marling explored in Sound of my Voice returned in her terrific Netflix show, The OA. So you have a bonus recommendation right there.
While many swear by director Kevin Smith’s early work - films like Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma (all great) - Red State is the trailblazing indie filmmaker at his most experimental - both stylistically and thematically. Based on the real-life Westboro Baptist Church, and featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Michael Parks (it’s a travesty that he wasn’t nominated), Red State is a darkly funny, tremendously thrilling, and deeply disturbing portrait of a man preaching false prophecies, and the ‘family’ of followers who carry out his most destructive orders.
The Jonestown massacre is arguably one of the most mysterious mass suicides in history. How could Jim Jones, the leader of a socialist cult in Guyana, convince 918 followers to poison themselves (it’s where the phrase ‘drink your Kool-Aid’ comes from). How could such a large-scale mass murder - that’s what it was declared later, the biggest until 9/11 - slip under the radar? Ti West’s micro-budget horror movie, in which two VICE reporters travel to the camp to investigate the ‘commune’, paints a grim portrait of what really happens behind the scenes at places such as this. Many first-hand accounts describe Gurmeet Ram Rahim’s Sirsa complex in similar terms - creepy.
If there’s one thing that can’t be debated, it’s this: Paul Thomas Anderson only makes masterpieces, unless, of course, he makes Inherent Vice. The Master, however, is one of his best works - almost as monumental as There Will be Blood. It’s a thinly disguised story about the origins of Scientology, featuring two brilliant central performances by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman (who plays the leader) and Joaquin Phoenix (the follower).
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
Sometimes, you don’t really need to see the charming cult leaders in action. Alex Gibney’s fascinating deep-dive into the murky waters of Scientology barely has any time for founder L Ron Hubbard - there’s hardly any footage of him anyway. Instead, Gibney expertly pieces together accounts of ‘survivors’, the people who found themselves sucked into the strange, super-secretive religion, but escaped. It’s their story, and their memories of torture, coercion, blackmail and harassment that drives this film. And once you’re done, you could check out Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. For those keeping score, that’s bonus recommendation number two.
Truth be told, we’re all a bit spoiled for choice when it comes to films and TV about Charles Manson and his notorious Family. You could watch the several films made on the mass murderer - interestingly, he never really physically killed anyone himself, his followers did - or you could watch Aquarius, the recent David Duchovny show: It’s fine, nothing special. But perhaps the best of the lot is this obscure ‘70s made-for-TV movie, named after Manson’s wonky ideology, which itself got its name because of an unfortunate (and very racist) misreading of the lyrics to the Beatles song of the same name. It’s as bizarre as it sounds.