‘Awake: The Life of Yogananda’: Film Review

Courtesy of Self-Realization Fellowship, Los Angeles, Calif.
Intriguing archival material can't quite compensate for a tendency toward proselytizing

The guru who brought kriya yoga to the West is the subject of a documentary exploring his lasting influence

Published in 1946, Autobiography of a Yogi is still in print in dozens of languages, and has been a gateway to Eastern philosophy for countless readers. The Indian author, Paramahansa Yogananda, is generally considered the man who brought kriya yoga to the West, arriving in Boston in 1920 and soon establishing a foothold in Southern California. The documentary Awake: The Life of Yogananda, designed for the uninitiated but sure to please followers, draws upon a rich archival cache to bring that East-meets-West period to life. Even so, it doesn’t delve deep beyond the surface of a New Age hero.

Directors Paola di Florio (Home of the Brave) and Lisa Leeman (One Lucky Elephant) combine historical and new footage, dramatic reenactments and impressionistic imagery that embraces the meditative aspect of kriya. They don’t always find the right balance. The doc, which was commissioned by the Self-Realization Fellowship, the international organization that Yogananda founded and which carries on his teachings, offers discerning commentary yet too often has the ring of a promotional presentation.

The guru’s story holds a certain fascination not just for spiritual seekers but for anyone interested in non-mainstream American culture of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. And given the stateside explosion of hatha yoga, the film stands to entice its practitioners and expand their workout-routine understanding of yogic discipline. (On the cinematic front, Yogananda will be on screens again soon, played by Victor Banerjee, in an upcoming narrative feature, The Answer, the story of one of his American disciples.)

Yogananda wasn’t the first guru in the U.S., but he was the first with far-reaching impact, and became something of a Jazz Age celebrity. Playful clips of Our Gang and Felix the Cat bolster the sense of time and place, as do vintage tunes. “East Indian Mystic Starts on Motor Tour,” a newspaper headline announces — one item in the filmmakers’ strong selection of clips, stills and printed matter. President Coolidge invited him to the White House. He crisscrossed the country to lecture overflow audiences on mind-expanding topics like “The Science of Religion.”

In that department, Yogananda was well ahead of his time; he prefigured the scientific concept of neuroplasticity with his description of electrical pathways in the brain that could be “regrooved,” as George Harrison put it. Di Florio and Leeman excel at condensing complex ideas with clarity. They bring the story, and the teachings, up to date in interviews with theologians, scientists and artists who speak persuasively of the benefits of kriya, a discipline defined by the quest for spiritual development.

The polished production sets a suitably serene tone while leaving many stones unturned. It offers the chance to hear the man himself, through audio recordings as well as excerpts from his writings, delivered in the resonant voice of Bollywood actor Anupam Kher. Re-creations of key events in the yogi’s life range from the lovely to the ham-handed. Beyond his exceptional spiritual aptitude, there’s little sense of the man, even as he inspired Roaring Twenties industrialists and other wealthy disciples to bankroll his mission.

Relating the basics of a scandal involving Yogananda’s close friend Swami Dhirananda and a lawsuit between them, the film offers no clue to Yogananda’s reaction to the events. His apparent knack for publicity and fundraising goes unexplored as well.

At its most beside-the-point, the film incorporates a Self-Realization Fellowship monk’s present-day pilgrimage to India, providing a smattering of local color but nothing else, and spotlights straight-to-the-camera comments on religious experience by unidentified people (Russell Simmons among them). Also on the pop-culture front, there's compelling interview footage of Harrison, of the original Apple, crediting Yogananda's autobiography with transforming his life. And there are reports that Steve Jobs, appropriator of the Apple brand name, arranged for every mourner at his funeral to receive a copy of the book. One endorsement is as good as another; as with much of Awake, there's ample wisdom on offer, but the finer points are often brushed aside, or left for the viewer to sort out. 

Production company: CounterPoint Films
With: George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Krishna Das, Deepak Chopra, Anita Goel, Russell Simmons
Narrator: Anupam Kher
Writer-directors: Paola di Florio, Lisa Leeman
From writings and talks by Paramahansa Yogananda
Producers: Peter Rader, Paola di Florio, Lisa Leeman
Director of photography: Arlene Nelson
Editors: Peter Rader, Ken Schneider, Paola di Florio, Lisa Leeman
Music: Michael R. Mollura, Vivek Maddala

Rated PG, 87 minutes

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