CHENNAI: According to guitarist George Harrison, Saint Yogananda Paramahansa’s (aka Yogi) eyes were very powerful and his photo on the back cover of a book attracted him to practice yoga and meditation. Like the musician, many others worldwide were introduced to yoga by Yogananda. Awake: The life of Yogananda, a documentary on the life of the Yogi, featuring the experiences of well-known personalities like Russel Simmons, sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, James Lynn and many more who were part of Yogi’s satsangs, and testimonies of devotees was screened in Coimbatore recently. The filmmakers Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman have included rare footage and speeches of the Yogi.
In a chat with City Express, the directors shared their experience of making the documentary. “For decades, people were trying to tell the story of Yogananda, but the organisation, Self Realisation Fellowship, was not that eager to do so. In 2008, things changed when many of his disciples passed away, and the idea of telling a story about him became a reality. I was interested in telling his story because I feel we need some alignment to take place as we are living in an unsustainable world,” said Paola.
Lisa concurred and added that many filmmakers were interviewed before the project was passed on to them. “We were lucky enough to get the job and it was a thrilling experience,” she said. The duo faced a lot of challenges while making the documentary. “We wanted the audience to experience some of the principles and teachings of Yogananda. We tried to create cinematic experiences through image readings, music and interplay,” said Paola, adding that they were lucky enough to chance up on a footage shot somewhere between 1920s-30s, just when camera was born.
“First, we had to understand Yogananda’s writings and teachings,” said Lisa. “During our research, we found that Yogi did not know English, faced racism and was chased out of Miami. He came to America during a time when society was divided between people of two extremes — open-minded or conservative. The saint knew how to communicate to the Americans,” she said. It took them nearly five years to complete the movie and it was first released in 2014 in the USA.
The film features an anecdote by actor Anupam Kher and Paola too. As the film hits Indian screens in a phased manner, the duo shared their joy. “This movie has exceeded our expectation in terms of audience’s response, as this is a spiritual film. We were concerned about the response, but when we saw long queues to watch the film in New York and Los Angeles where it ran for 7-20 weeks, it reassured our faith,” said Paola. Lisa added, “It’s a joy and privilege to make a film about an Indian who many Americans consider to be the ‘Father of Yoga’. Almost a century later, the film is bringing his teachings back to India.”
The team also shot in India and they describe it as magical. “The relationships you share here are magical; it’s not so in the West. That’s something that makes you embrace the spirit in India,” adds Paola.