Understanding one’s parents might be as difficult as fathoming the cosmos, but it’s something most of us try to do, in one way or another. Doing this through the lens of a camera for a documentary film, as a number of children of famous parents have in works like My Architect, by the son of Louis Kahn; William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, by the radical lawyer’s two daughters; and The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, by Carl Colby, can be an effective, if grandiose method. It allows the film maker to use the tried-and-true tools of the profession while also making a very public statement.
“What the camera did for me was give me added courage,” says Celia Maysles, who made Wild Blue Yonder about her documentary pioneer father, David Maysles. “It gave me an excuse to prod a little deeper than I might have because it was ‘for the film.’”
On Friday, Gotham Chopra, the son of the self-help star Deepak Chopra, takes a similar journey with the release of Decoding Deepak. Gotham Chopra says, “To do this project privately, I wouldn’t get the same material or the insights that I did.” The film captures “who he really is because you can’t separate him from the public,” he adds. “He has a need to be a part of the public conversation.”
Variety called the film “neither hagiography nor hatchet job”, as it takes frequent shots at Deepak Chopra for caring about matters like the success of his books (66 so far).
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“Buddha was a narcissist, wasn’t he?” says his son (who changed his name from Gautam). “It was all about him reconciling his own inner demons. Narcissism is the great contradiction of my dad and the great paradox of spirituality, of which he is an icon.” The same, it appears, may also apply to the sons of icons.
In the documentary, Chopra follows his peripatetic father around the world, from speeches to his ordainment as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, as they engage in deep conversations about consciousness and playful banter about the parent’s devotion to his Blackberry. Gotham Chopra didn’t want to create a “puff piece”, he says, even if it provided fodder for his father’s detractors, like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who has called him a pinhead.
“The easiest way out was to say, “yes”, Deepak Chopra, 65, says of the film, as he sits in his small, airy office in Deepak Home Base, a studio tucked in the downtown furniture store ABC Carpet & Home. “It was also an excuse to hang out with him,” he adds, looking brightly at his 37-year-old son.
The seeds of inspiration were sown when Gotham Chopra — a journalist and author who has developed new-media ventures — worked for Al Gore on what would become Current TV.
“Here was a guy who had a hard time getting people to find him appealing,” says Chopra, who witnessed how the global-warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, changed perceptions of the former vice president. “And then here’s this thing that he’s so passionate about that made him likeable. That movie reconciles the two. I wanted to do something similar with the popular impression of my father and the person who I think he is.”
In Decoding Deepak, Chopra charts his father’s rise from Indian immigrant to successful Boston doctor, on to apostle for the Transcendental Meditation movement and now best-selling pop spiritualist, thanks to his introduction to the mainstream by Oprah Winfrey in 1993.
The ordainment trip sets up a question central to the film: how can Deepak Chopra be detached in a spiritual sense and yet lead a comfortable life with a need for constant attention? And his son readily concedes that similar questions can be posed about him. “There’s definitely narcissism in making a film like this,” he says in a follow-up phone call. “I am still trying to figure things like that out.”
“There’s an arc to this movie that starts cynical,” Gotham Chopra says back in the studio. It ends with an appreciation for this,” he says, indicating his father’s office — and by extension the whole Deepak Nation — by pressing his fingertips together and parting them as if releasing pixie dust, a gesture that could be sincere or gently mocking.
The film maker’s sister, Mallika, who like her brother lives in Los Angeles, says by phone that although the family deeply respects her father, she was concerned that the film “could have ended in disaster”. “My dad has a big personality and my brother rolls his eyes more than I do. But, in the end, it enhanced his respect for him.”
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In the film, Gotham Chopra asks his father how important his family is to him. “The only people I am really attached to are my grandchildren,” he replies. The younger Chopra, who has a 5-year-old son with his wife, Candice S Chen, an ophthalmologist, merely smiles in response.
“People bring that up,” Gotham Chopra says. “It’s funny because it didn’t feel like an emotional moment for me.”
“But I can explain it,” his father says, quickly. “It’s a very philosophical thing. You love your children best when you are not attached.”
“Even your mother agrees, OK?” he adds.
Both work on a constant flow of projects. Deepak Chopra has three books coming out, and his son is expanding his comic book company and producing the Chopra Well, a YouTube channel.
“I am restless,” Gotham Chopra says. “Like him, actually.”
His father, laughing, says: “Come on, I just came out of a week of silence — contemplating my own death,”(he was referring to a meditation retreat). “I am not restless.”
“You’re restless to communicate,” Gotham Chopra retorts.
“Maybe,” his father says softly. “By tonight, this conversation, it’ll all be a dream.”
It’s a profound and charming pronouncement but also slightly stupefying, the sort of thing that must have frustrated a son trying to make a documentary. “He’s detached, and I mean that in a complimentary way,” Gotham Chopra says. “I realised I had to be the character with the arc by virtue of who he is.”
In Decoding Deepak, Chopra completes that arc by focusing on himself and his greatest passion: his son, Krishu. “Having a child has prompted a new sense of self-security,” he says. “Now, I am not out to prove that I am Deepak 2.0.”
2012 © The New York Times
Decoding Deepak released in US on October 5