REVIEW: "Decoding Deepak" Is Amusing And Illuminating
In the documentary, the filmmaker and journalist attempts to separate the man from myth by following the teacher and healer on a yearlong trek around the world. The resulting film is a remarkably honest portrait of Deepak Chopra, as seen through the eyes of a person who knows him best--his son.
“My dad would send me pitches for documentaries from his fans,” Chopra said in an interview. “But I told him that they would just be celebrating his work and not really trying to portray the real him. I told him that they wouldn’t do him justice.”
"Decoding Deepak" is an up-close portrait of the spiritual icon. The younger Chopra draws upon archival footage and newly recorded interviews as well as his own observations during a year of journeying with his nomadic dad. The result is a briskly paced documentary that should fascinate the elder Chopra's admirers and maybe convert some critics. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, the non-fiction film is occasionally amusing and illuminating, and often both at the same time.
The smartly produced, visually interesting documentary begins with Gotham sounding very much like countless other children of celebrities as he claims that despite Deepak's international fame and ubiquitous presence in pop culture, his father remains a mystery to him. At the same time the journalist feels connected to his dad--and it’s not just because of their occasional professional collaborations that he has an understandable need to establish his own identity.
"Sometimes," Gotham acknowledges early in the film, "I am barely able to tell where he ends and I begin."
This appears to be a chief reason for the road trip central to the film, a transcontinental trek that begins with Deepak Chopra's ordination as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, and concludes with both men contemplating their roots while inspecting ancient family registers in rural India.
During the documentary, Gotham enjoys focusing on his father's quirks, such as Deepak's fanatical attachment to his Blackberry, while he prepares for his Buddhist monk ordination. In this way, the director reveals the human side of a man widely revered as a gregarious guru who dispenses easily accessible words of wisdom. At the same time, however, Gotham slyly depicts some of his dad's most outspoken critics, particularly those employed by Fox News, as cynics, blowhards and dullards.
At some point during the film, though, the younger Chopra divulges a private agenda. He will expose dad's self-centeredness and try to figure out what others see in him. Crucially, the film would ask why strangers "don't ask me about Gotham; they ask me about him."
Self-absorption is hereditary, it seems, and while Gotham gathers material, his incessant narration is peppered with statements like "I wanted to...learn to listen, rather than talk all the time." Meanwhile, Deepak is rattling off ideas for scenes in the film, directing the director as if he were a hired photographer. He's surprisingly invested in crafting this self-portrait for someone who claims to believe a "personal me" doesn't exist.
Gradually, a portrait emerges of a smart, self-aware multihyphenat--bestselling author, spiritual counselor, media superstar—who is largely comfortable in his role as head of a one-man enlightenment industry, but who also admits to occasional excesses of pride and periods of self-doubt.
Documentarians are not generally featured in documentaries, let alone play almost a central role in it. The closer the filmmaker is to the center of the film, the harder it is for the film to succeed, and Gotham is clearly right in the bull's-eye. Although, one can imagine the difficulty of making a film about your own father without putting yourself in the mix, especially when your father is Deepak Chopra.
Fortuitously, "Decoding Deepak" captures its subject during what evidently was for him an unusually introspective period of time: At the time of production, he was 65, coping with the recent death of a colleague and judging by what the documentary reveals, noticeably conscious of his own mortality. There are moments when Gotham seems visibly surprised and grateful to see just how forthcoming his father is, and the viewer cannot help thinking the entire experience served both men very well.
Reach contributor Jennifer Whalen here.