Awake: The Life of Yogananda – A journey of awakening
There is an awakening of sorts when you finish having a conversation with Academy award-nominated filmmaker Paola Di Floria (Home of the Brave) and Lisa Leeman (One Lucky Elephant) about their documentary Awake: The Life of Yogananda. The film is based on the eminent Indian Yogi Paramhansa Yogananda who is widely regarded as the father of Yoga in the West and is the author of the best-selling ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. This biographical documentary, which they claim has awakened numerous people outside India, and seen an outstanding response, is all set to release pan-India on June 17, four days before International Yoga Day. The LA-based filmmakers talk to Pandolin about the documentary which has been narrated by Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, its making and how it has affected many lives.
How did the idea of a documentary based on world spiritual teacher Paramahansa Yogananda originate?
Lisa: A very modest American family who have been long time followers of the Yogananda’s teachings and who wished to remain anonymous for a very long time went to Yogananda’s legacy organization – Self Realization Fellowship (SRF). They said that it is the time when there should be a film made about Yogananda’s teachings from India as the world needs them now. For decades, people have been asking SRF to make a film on Yogananda as they had the access to the archives. It was hard for them to believe that a film could really do justice to represent their guru. But somehow the timing was great. I want to give credit to SRF because they have a very capable film team themselves but they wanted an outside team to make the film with the objectivity of independent filmmakers. They interviewed a lot of documentary filmmakers from Los Angles but we got the gig.
Paola: Initially I wasn’t too sure if this was the film that I wanted to make. When we make these documentary films, we live with them for years. So you have to choose very carefully what you want to do. At that time, I felt that it was very spiritual. But the thing that really captured my interest was that firstly yoga is a science but here in the US we don’t think of yoga as a science. We see it as an exercise, something that you do to get in shape. The idea of using the body and mind for spiritual experimentation was very appealing to me. When we met the team of SRF who was going to work on the project, there was an incredible openness in the room. And it was clear that the mission was to awaken the human spirits, that’s why it is called Awake because it is really about awakening.
It was clear that the mission was to awaken the human spirits, that is why it is called Awake
What kind of an experience was it to co-direct the film?
Lisa: They approached Paola first and since it was a big film, she approached me to co-direct, which I’ll be eternally grateful for. And then we pitched the film together. We wanted to make a film that had objectivity.
Paola: I think we became each other’s biggest teachers because we were going on this journey together. It was going to provoke all the ways in which we needed to learn. You can’t be on spiritual paths and not have lessons. Fortunately, I also feel blessed to be on this journey with someone like Lisa because we do have common grounds. We were both curious and seekers. I practiced yoga for 20 years and was also doing some Buddhist meditation. But it wasn’t until I started working on it (the film) that I really became curious about the concepts of Yogananda.
Since the film has already released in many countries, what kind of reactions have you’ll received?
Lisa: It has been released around the world in places like Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Latin America, France, USA, Italy, Switzerland and the response has been absolutely thrilling. In a place like America, it can be hard for any documentary to be in the theatres. But this was such a popular film that in one of the theatres of Manhattan, we were there for six weeks. Similar was the case at Los Angeles where we again ran for six weeks. It is a film with a message that needs to be heard in today’s time. There is a way to go inwards to find peace that you can always connect with. In the stressful times of multitasking, as a filmmaker, I certainly feel that meditation is what keeps me sane.
Paola: There was a woman who broke the record by coming 27 times to see the film. She said that for her it was like going to church. You’ll be surprised that being in India has been such an exquisite experience for me. Literally my body was shaking from some of the experiences that we had while following Yogananda’s footsteps into the Himalayan mountains. India has embraced and integrated spirituality into lives in a way that the West has not done. You cannot be indifferent towards that when you come to India. However in a way, I feel that many people in India take it for granted. They might understand on an intellectual level. But perhaps haven’t embraced it totally. I understand that you don’t show documentaries in theatres in India. Correct?
India has embraced and integrated spirituality into lives in a way that the West has not done
It isn’t very common but the trend is slowly picking up.
Paola: Then I think it is the perfect film to bring that change. It is a powerful story. You need a good story for any movie and Yogananda’s story is fascinating.
It also featured at various festivals. How did the festival circle respond to it?
Lisa: We had lines around the block at our premiere at the Seattle International Festival. It has also won the Spirit in Cinema Award at Maui Film Festival, Conscious Life Award at Conscious Life Expo Film Festival and was screened at Tel Aviv Spirit Film Festival and Heart International Women’s Film Festival.There is a wonderful festival in Sedona Arizona called Illuminate Film Festival which is devoted to the development of conscious cinema. We were there two years ago. They paired films with live events after the screening to deepen the film’s experience. So after the film we had a guided meditation and then there was chanting. At every festival that we have played out, we have had sold out screenings.
Paola: Be it the festival circuit or otherwise, the biggest compliment has been when people have said that their life has changed or when they have a major revelation about a connection. There was a woman who saw the film in New York and suddenly had an awakening through the movie. By awakening, we mean that something that you knew already gets lit up. So it is the knowledge that one has, that gets sparked. She left her job in New York and drove to Los Angles to visit the ashrams over there. She ended up getting a job of a cook in one of the ashrams. Many people have had such experiences after watching the film.
It was a cinematic challenge to figure out how do we create cinematic yet very internal experiences
Which aspects of Paramahansa’s life does the documentary explore?
Lisa: We wanted it to be an unconventional biography. It was a cinematic challenge to figure out how do we create cinematic yet very internal experiences. Yogananda had visions of the divine mother and Jesus and other different sorts of extraordinary experiences. We have covered the period from the predictions before his birth, which said that there will be someone born who would take these ancient Indian wisdom teachings to the West, all the way up to through his coming to America in 1920. He had a real gift to understand Americans, American culture and how to translate the Indian teachings in a way that Americans could understand them. We covered him all the way up to his death. He used to say that I want to die speaking of my beloved India. He said, “I do not want to die in bed, but with my boots on, speaking of God and India.” And you’ll be surprised to know that he died while speaking for the Indian ambassador. It was the ambassador’s first visit to LA as the ambassador of independent India and Yogananda was giving a speech by reciting his poem – ‘My India’. He finished the poem with the lines – “Where Ganges, woods, Himalayan caves, and men dream God-I am hallowed; my body touched that sod.” And then he literally dropped, left his body and died in front of many dignitaries.
Tell us about the treatment you’ll adopted to make sure that viewers are drawn to it.
Paola: We used the rich tools that we had. Firstly showing Yogananda on screen, as we had his voice and then we had Anupam Kher. Seeing the film it may seem obvious that we have always thought of using Yogananda as a character to convey his own story but is was not obvious because it was a big choice to use an actor and not a narrator. He is not reading narration but is acting his part.
The biggest question was that how are we going to get it on screens? ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ is so amazing, then why make a movie? I come from a philosophy that you really have to ask yourself these hard questions because if something is going to be on the screen, it has to take you on a journey and it needs to be cinematic. For us it was a real journey of discovery – to take the teachings of Yogananda and share it on the screen. One of the breakthroughs was recognizing that it’s his image and voice that’s going to actually carry power – a path that transcended the screen itself. Yogananda was very innovative and had been working on technology. He embraced what the West had to offer and used technology at that time by using mediums like films or radio to disseminate his lessons and ancient teachings from the East. When the movie was played, people just did not come to see it once. They came over and over. We played in 350 theatres in the US, which is a huge number for a spiritual documentary. Years ago it seemed a little risky to make a film like this. But we knew that 20 million people were practicing yoga in the US. We knew that yoga was spreading around the world. We also knew that scientists were doing the study on the effects of yoga on the body and mind.
One of the breakthroughs was recognizing that it’s his image and voice that’s going to actually carry power – a path that transcended the screen itself
How much time did the documentary take, where all was it shot and which interviews does it include?
Lisa: So much time (laughs). We thought it would take two or three years which is quite common for any film but we spent six years to make this film. It was a big story. Since he was a prolific writer, first we had to read, imbibe his writings and sort of understand where he was coming from – both as a person and his teachings. Then we had to figure out how to create a cinematic experience in a narrative. It took almost a year for us to figure out what would be the logical way to tell the story. He had written so many books and articles and from his writings, we were able to create first-person narrative in his voice. We were able to use actual recordings of his voice. We were thrilled that we got a chance to work with Bollywood star Anupam Kher who is a great actor. The film also features interviews with George Harrison, lead guitarist of The Beatles; the world-renowned Indian musician, late Ravi Shankar; holistic health pioneer Deepak Chopra; famous Kirtan musician Krishna Das; and many others who have found inspiration in Paramhansa’s writings and teachings.
How did Anupam Kher come on board?
Lisa: He responded right away and was very enthusiastic about the story. The material and the story really resonated with him.
Paola: We had a list of six or eight actors that we thought of considering. And Anupam Kher was someone whom we listened to, as we knew that it was all about the voice. The voice had to convey the incredible spectrum of human emotions. Yogananda was a multidimensional yoga master. Anupam had that ability of range and the quality of voice. Without this ability that he had in carrying the role of Yogananda, I’m not so sure that the idea of having him as the character in the documentary would have worked. We have a lot to thank Anupam for.
On a personal level, was there anything about yoga that you both explored which you didn’t know earlier?
Lisa: In 1984, a boyfriend at that time gave me Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. He told me that I was too empirical, logical and evidence-based, therefore he wanted me to read the book. And when I started reading the book, there were chapters in the book that were called ‘the levitating saint’ – the saint with two bodies. It has fantastical tales. Basically, what that book did back in 1980s is that it exploded my rational mind, giving me the sense that there is a possibility of things that I can’t really understand or explain, but they are actually possible. When I was invited to make this film with Paola, I had some reaction around the word God. That was just my upbringing. First, we took a year to edit the film without using the word God. But then we found out that every other word from his mouth was about God. Working on the film helped me have a much deeper understanding of what Yogananda and other people meant when they talk about God, divinity and great cosmic consciousness.
Paola: Everything. And I really mean this. Even though I’m a yoga practitioner and have been practicing yoga since my early 20s and have also dabbled in meditation, I had not started the daily meditation practice until working on this film. And it came out of just my desire to understand what Yogananda was teaching so that I could put it into the movie and could convey better what had to be on screen. Then coming to India was a very powerful experience. I had a very deep connection with the country and coming back from there I knew that I wanted to be initiated into kriya. I wanted to deepen my practice.
We need to come back to the basics and in connection with our whole beings and who we truly are
What kind of expectations do you have from the release of the documentary in India?
Lisa: It gives me chills as it is so beautiful and perfect that the film has come a full circle. Yogananda was born in 1893 in India and came to America to spread these teachings. Now this film is a representative going back to India in the 21st century.
Paola: There are a lot of firsts with Yogananda. He was the first swami to come and take residence in America and traveled across the country to initiate thousands of people into yoga. He was one of the first to adopt the early technology of the time in order to teach spirituality. All the places that the film screened, it took people by surprise. I think we are in a very particular time where we are ready to receive yoga. And it is not an accident that International Day of Yoga became formally recognised by the UN through Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; yoga is growing around the world.
Yogananda said that the atomic age would need teachings of yoga. His Paramguru predicted that yoga would spread throughout the world. Yogananda said that we have to harness the power within us or we would just destroy ourselves. Now in the information age, we are loaded with communication, information and demands of life are such that people are stressed out. We need to come back to the basics and in connection with our whole beings and who we truly are. A holistic approach to life is necessary and yoga shows the path.