In 1984, award-winning American director Lisa Leeman first heard about Paramahansa Yogananda. Her boyfriend at the time told her to read the bestseller, The Autobiography of a Yogi, and laughed, "You’re too empirical." When the 47-year-old did read it, it 'blew her practical mind'. "Even if I didn’t understand it, I realised that many things are possible," she says over the phone from Los Angeles. Little did she know that 34 years later, she would be make a documentary about the great Indian yogi, credited for introducing asanas and meditation to Westerners.
Paramahansa Yogananda with Mahatma Gandhi
For co-director Paola di Florio, who got an Academy nomination for her movie Speaking in Strings about violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Yogananda was a mystery, except for spotting his temple on Sunset Boulevard. "Making Awake: The Life of Yogananda, was a process of discovery. Not only his is an incredible story, it is also the realisation that yoga is about knowing that the body and mind are labs for experimenting and finding a way to connect to a greater self," she says.
The film, which releases in India on June 17, ahead of World Yoga Day on June 21, is a biography that features interviews with Beatle George Harrison, late Pt Ravi Shankar, Deepak Chopra, famous kirtan musician Krishna Das, and many others who have found inspiration in Paramhansa's teachings. Apple visionary Steve Jobs only had Yogananda’s book on his iPad? The documentary also talks of Yogananda’s travels from his school in Ranchi, called How-to-Live school, to America, after he receives a ‘message from God’.
Over eight years, the directors went through archival material provided by the Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, established in LA. “In Hollywood, it’s all about making edgy movies. But after all, 20 million people practice yoga in America,” says Florio, They opened in 350 theatres across the States, and in around 50 theatres everywhere it travelled, including Italy or Japan. “The aim was to create a cinematic experience of the power of meditation,” says Leeman.
But the directors, who became regular meditators, were sceptical how audiences would react to this documentary. “In America, especially, no one knows the connection between meditation, yoga, God and the higher self,” says Florio.
To test the waters, they held a screening for a group of cynical friends, after which one of them concluded, ‘This is good news. So it’s actually not all about the body!’” And, the reactions continued to be overwhelming at every screening that followed. “Audiences would remain seated in silence, many with their eyes closed in a thoughtful trance,” says Leeman. Florios gives the credit to Yogananda’s eyes. “When they turn to you, something happens.”
Paola di Florio
The duo hopes the film will remind Indian audiences of the magical strength of ancient Indian teachings. “People here are stressed. It will teach everyone how to unplug,” Leeman concludes.