Directed by Lisa Leeman and Paola di Florio. Rating unavailable.
“This earth is nothing but movies to me,” said Paramahansa Yogananda in his best-selling Autobiography of a Yogi, calling life itself “nothing but shadows and light”. Film is a natural medium, then, to convey the famous teacher’s life. But Awake: The Life of Yogananda is a mixed blessing: an intriguing overview for those who know very little or a lot about the man and his message; frustratingly incomplete for everyone in between.
More hagiography than biopic, the movie was certainly a labour of devotion for Lisa Leeman and Paola di Florio, who take a florid approach to documentary filmmaking. The talking heads include Ravi Shankar, Deepak Chopra, and George Harrison. (And they probably could have skipped the clip of the late Beatle saying, “If not for Yogananda, I probably wouldn’t have a life.”)
It would have helped to mention Theosophy and the other proto-new-age interests that greeted the Indian-born yogi when he moved to Los Angeles. After initial success at his Mount Washington headquarters, he was plagued by media-hyped scandals and general xenophobia. But there is no explanation of the very public rift with his key colleague, the less charismatic but more businesslike Dhirananda. (Hint: it was mostly about young women and old money.) Nor is there anything about his private life or personal habits. Yogananda was notably corpulent, and his sudden death, in 1952, is treated as inevitable.
The bigger problem is not absence but too much; the filmmakers utilize every trick of modern postproduction, combining travelogues, re-creations, dream sequences, CGI animation and effects, on-the-nose archival images (if someone mentions a phonograph record, you see an LP), and a fellow retracing the guru’s steps on an Indian pilgrimage. This shows a surprising lack of faith in the core material, and, even worse, it obscures the really remarkable stuff they were able to dig up, including real footage of Yogananda touring the U.S. in the 1920s, and later touring his homeland and meeting Mahatma Gandhi. Images of him propping up the corpse of his own dead guru, Yukteswar, are particularly affecting. And the movie, at the very least, will get viewers interested in digging deeper into this totemic figure.