Film: ‘Awake – The Life of Yogananda’; Co-directors: Paola Di Florio and Lisa Leeman; Voiceover: Anupam Kher; Rating: **1/2
This biopic, directed by Paola Di Florio and Lisa Leeman, celebrates the life of Paramahansa Yogananda. It is an inspiring, fascinating and informative documentary that is affectionately told. But, it falls a little short in explaining Yogananda’s spiritual inclination.
For the uninitiated, Paramahansa Yogananda, born Mukunda Lal G, was an Indian yogi and guru who introduced yoga and meditation to millions of westerners in the early 1920s.
Narrated in a non-linear manner, the film encapsulates the spiritual master’s life, right from the time he was in his mother’s womb till his death in 1952 and beyond. It does so by explaining how his teachings have influenced his followers even after his death.
The arc of the narrative reveals how Yogananda, after the death of his mother, finds his spiritual guru in Benaras and later settles in Ranchi, where he receives his divine calling; to travel to the US to teach yoga.
It further reveals that the Yogi was reluctant to travel yet was dutiful. After reaching Boston, he realised that the ideal place for him to make an impact in the US was by being in California. And so, he soon set up his centre there.
Most of the talking heads are his admirers who testify his belief in yoga as “science of the soul and cosmic senses” rather than mystic art – a “philosophical system” with meditation as its main tool.
John Lynn, an oil tycoon, emphasises it further by saying, “meditation is the catch word”.
There is ample cultural context as well. The acceptance of a brown skinned foreigner preaching the science of religion in an advance society versus resentment and suspicion. The film also tactfully reveals how Yogananda though being a supporter of Gandhi, refrained from his ascetic extremes.
The visuals, layered over a first-person voice-over narrative delivered by actor Anupam Kher meshes a series of; black-and-white re-enactments, elementary 2D animation, archival footages – print, radio and television along with interviews of those who knew Yogananda well and those who study his teachings today.
Packed with random generic visuals, the film is designed like the documentaries of the 1980s.
Anupam Kher’s weak and limp voice further highlights this. The dramatisations, though sober, come from the talking heads like author Deepak Chopra, Krishna Das, Brother Vishwananda, Sri Daya Mata, Anita Goel, Andrew Newberg, author and journalists Phil Goldberg, Stefanie Syman and Robert Love and yoga guru Bikram Chaudhary.
Overall, this film will specifically appeal to Yogananda’s followers. And though it is not quite hagiography, it is almost hard not to get caught up in the film’s admiring tone.