An Indian American who stars in the new Mike Myers comedy, The Love Guru, has dismissed controversy over the film as "a tempest in a teapot" created by a self-promoting Hindu leader who does not represent South Asians in the US.
"I'm proud of this movie and enjoyed creating the character of Rajneesh," said Manu Narayan, who plays an Indian born apprentice of Guru Pitka, the lead character played by Myers, noted for his Austin Powers spoof series.
Pitka is an American raised by gurus in an ashram in India who returns to the US to set up a highly commercialised self-help business, riding around town on a motorised carpet with a cell phone glued to his ear as he mouths slogans dipped in oriental wisdom.
That has raised the hackles of Rajan Zed, a self-styled Hindu leader who shot to fame last year after reading the historic first Hindu prayers in the US Senate. Based on the movie's trailer and MySpace page, Zed says, the film "appears to be lampooning Hinduism and Hindus and uses sacred terms frivolously".
But Narayan said: "My true feeling is this is a tempest in a teapot created by someone whose only frame of reference is a short trailer."
The Love Guru is classic Mike Myers; it is tremendously funny and it has heart," Narayan said.
Asked what his answer to Zed's charges was, the actor said: "I do not know Zed nor have I ever met him. But I would say to him: see the movie before you make such assumptions.
"On a personal level and as a South Asian American, I resent anyone whom I do not know putting himself or herself forward as my spiritual or religious leader," said Narayan.
"Zed does not represent my concerns nor of my friends and family," he said. "To me it looks like his timely blog post [picked up by media outlets] is more of an example of a smart self-promoter rather than a person who holds his religious concerns first and foremost."
Narayan agrees with new age Guru Deepak Chopra, who too is lampooned in the film, that Paramount's decision to pre-screen the film for Hindu representatives was like pandering to a few fundamentalists.
"It is like saying that Austin Powers should have been pre-screened for British leaders.... Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?"
"All artists need to be able to create without reservation and outside editing," said Narayan when asked where he, as an artist, would set the limits of artistic freedom and whether it was right to offend the sensibilities of a religious or ethnic minority in its name.
"Sometimes if the result offends the sensibilities of a minority group, it can be a great way to raise a dialogue," he said. "However, I can emphatically say that is not the case in The Love Guru."
"I experienced first hand the respect, passion, and childlike reverence Myers and the whole creative team of The Love Guru had for South Asian culture as well as for Canadian, American and definitely the hockey cultures!"
About his own role as Rajneesh, Guru Pitka's Indian born 'sishya', Narayan said: "Basically, I play the guru's trusted sidekick who reveres his teacher and yet is also the rock on which the guru leans in times of need."
To prepare for the role "I studied Carnatic music on saxophone in the guru/sishya tradition with Sri Kadri Gopalnath in Mangalore, India, for a better part of a year.
"I lived with my teacher's family studying as his apprentice and then growing into a trusted assistant and travel partner all the while learning so, so much.
"I tried to incorporate the Asian ideas of respect of knowledge into my role - being two steps behind my guruji, hanging on every word for a gem of knowledge, and being willing to accept any task as an offering of knowledge," Narayan said.
"All of this was a jumping off point into the comic world that Myers creates in each of his movies," he said. "Myers was a joy to work with and I hope that Rajneesh and Guru Pitka in the end have a relationship that is a comic representation of the love and respect that teachers and students as well as bosses and assistants have for each other.
"I am so proud to have been a part of The Love Guru and honoured to have learned so much from my guru of comedy, Myers," Narayan said.