There is no way to say for certain what tomorrow will bring.
I’ve heard that dozens of times, and yet, I am still always hoping that I’m living all of this the “right” way: That I am making some sort of impact, that I am loving people as they deserve it, that I am staying authentic and true to myself. But at the same time, that I am not taking it all too seriously—that I am finding the balance and enjoying the journey along the way.
It has been teachers like Deepak Chopra who have shown me, time and time again, just how important this balance is in life and how you can actually impact others just by being the most true version of yourself.
A new film that really gets to the heart of authenticity is Decoding Deepak. Journalist and filmmaker Gotham Chopra spent a year traveling the world decoding his father Deepak Chopra, resolving the spiritual icon he is to the world versus the real man known to his family.
This film had a very positive personal impact on me. I’ve spent some time with Deepak on the road for Oprah’s Lifeclass Tour, and I’ve also had some really awesome live discussions with the Chopra family. But today, I am ready to bring a new spotlight into the mix with this Q&A with Gotham Chopra―the creator of Decoding Deepak―to have a deeper conversation about making the film and the lessons he gathered from the yearlong journey of documenting his father.
Check out the interview, watch the short clip or the full length film, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below! I always love hearing from you.
Want to see the full documentary? CLICK HERE.
Q & A
Eric Handler (EH): What was the original “deal” you made with your father regarding issues like creative control and point of view on the project? Did you have to “pitch” the idea to him, and, if so, what was your pitch?
Gotham Chopra (GC): Not really. I’m very close to my father and always have been. There’s never been a formality to our relationship and so there was no negotiation or even articulation of process around access, creative control, or any of that.
At the beginning, I don’t think he was entirely clear what we were doing. I probably wasn’t either.
I had this vague idea that I wanted to try and separate the icon whom the world has made my dad to be from the man I thought I knew. I shared that idea with him, and he shrugged and said “okay.”
I appreciated then—and even more so now—his trust in me but also in himself to not draw any real lines. He’s very comfortable with whom he is—his own contradictions and his relationships—that he just rolled with it as we rolled tape on it.
EH: There is a long, not-so-nice tradition of tell-alls, confessionals, and exposes by the children of celebrities. Though your film doesn’t not fall into this category, were you concerned about falling into that category? And, how critical could you allow yourself to be without venturing into “Daddy Dearest” territory?
GC: I was aware of it, but not imprisoned by it. At the outset, I knew in my head that I didn’t want to do an exploitative film of my dad that destroyed all of the credibility and status he has built over his career nor did I want to do some celebratory ode to him. In the end, I don’t think either of those types of films would have serviced a wider audience, which I was after.
I do think what comes across in the film is a certain questioning—even skepticism—from me while the camera follows my father.
More than anything, that’s probably the natural tenor of our relationship. I question everything I see. My father and his world wouldn’t be immune to that. If anything, a small group of Deepak loyalists have reacted to that, sensing more cynicism than skepticism, and that perhaps I was being too snide toward what he has built over his career, how many people he has touched, etc. Ironically, he hasn’t expressed any of those feelings.
EH: Early in the film, you say that you sometimes find it hard to tell where your father ends and you begin. Yet, the film carries themes of forging one’s own identity and finding one’s own path. Can you comment on the importance of this theme to you, your father, and to your respective (and shared) audiences?
GC: It’s funny, at the beginning of this process, I set out to make a film about my dad. Early on, as I contemplated what I was really doing, I realized that the film was actually about me. When I was done and started showing it to people and getting reactions like “that reminds me a lot about my relationship with my father” or “yeah, your dad and you express a lot of the questions I find myself asking about my life,” I realized that really this film is about people.
That’s a long way of saying that the film is about a lot of things: It’s about the icons we build in a culture that’s constantly searching for meaning. It’s about deconstructing that celebrity. It’s about families, father and sons, and trying to resolve love with longing to self-determination. And it’s about making sense of a world that is somewhat collapsing in on itself.
I think my father has become a symbol of this “flattening world”—Eastern wisdom traditions merging with western insights, the nexus of science and spirituality. I think the audience he has built, and that I have attracted, are trying to resolve these forces in the world and in their own lives. I know I am—trying to figure out meaning and purpose and significance while making a living, paying a mortgage, and having a political opinion but also having a spiritual existence. Onward.
EH: Well, one thing you make clear in the film is just how much your father broke with tradition at a few pivotal points in his life—abandoning traditional medicine for alternative medicine, breaking with his guru to go out on his own, etc. To what extent do you see yourself as having done the same thing? Did your father encourage and inspire your own breaks with tradition?
GC: I guess it’s ironic that while my dad is considered a teacher to millions, he’s never truly tried to teach me (or my sister) any rigid lessons. I do think he’s taught by example—his willingness to take bold steps in his career into uncharted territories, to break from comfort and safety, and to challenge established institutions and ideas—which has definitely been inspiring and empowering.
As for me, perhaps at some subconscious level, I have tried to break the norms as well. Or at the very least, be relatively detached from people’s expectations and reactions to what I do. But I also find myself rather frustrated and uncertain often times as to whether or not the constant desire to create and push undermines the discipline that comes with more traditional paths. Alas, I am who I am, and I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with that over time, especially after documenting my dad through the course of the film and realizing that, ultimately, I just want to sing in the shower and not care much who is listening or what they think.
EH: You say more than once in the film that if your father didn’t have one, it would be a problem for him. Can you speak a little more to the conflicts facing someone who speaks to wide audiences for a living but who also has to speak to the individuals in his personal life?
GC: My late friend Michael Jackson used to tell me that he just had music inside of him and all he was doing was letting it out. Whoever listened, listened. Later in his life, when he became embroiled in more controversy and scandals and wanted to use his music as a way to express his rage or articulate his response to some of his critics, he told me that it just didn’t feel the same. That same detached inspiration that was once the bedrock of his art was lost. I’ve never forgotten that, and when I reflect on gifted creators—like MJ, or my dad, or many others—I often think that they’re at their best when they are totally indifferent and detached from who is listening to them or paying attention. They are singing in the shower, and whoever happens to be listening, listens. Whatever they think, whether criticizing or celebrating, often has a lot more to do with them and their state of awareness rather than the person doing the singing.
In general, I do think there are fundamental challenges for people like this, who are able to detach themselves from those around them. The consequence of detachment can be emotional distance, which is probably something that, for years, I struggled with my dad. Why I felt he may be able to solve the world’s problems, but he wouldn’t necessarily be the guy I go to solve mine.
Over time, though, as I have personally matured, I think I’ve realized that the only person who can really help me solve my own problems is me. And that’s something my dad has been telling the world his whole career.
EH: The concept of legacy is important to your film, especially when you travel to India with your son. How important, in general, do you see the idea of legacy in people’s lives?
GC: I think the idea of a legacy is fascinating. Because when it’s all said in done, when this ego encapsulated bag of skin and bones withers and fades, all we are really left with is the wisp of something prior, a memory that modifies and gets idealized over time. In fact, where someone’s legacy really resides is in the people most affected by that someone. So for my dad, it will inevitably be me and my sister and our kids. We’ll take the good, forget the bad for the most part, and construct some recall of him that will hopefully make a positive mark on the world. I do think about this more now than before. I’m not sure why.
EH: One of the warmest and most revealing moments in the film is when your father is just lying on a large bed, with his grandson in his lap, watching TV. Is your father just “grandpa” to your son? Is your son aware of his grandfather’s public persona?
GC: Having a child is the most spiritual experience I think I’ll ever have. As a parent, your point of view often shifts to your child, and, in the reflection of your child’s eyes, you get to see the cosmos in a fresh way. No experience, no person, nothing comes with any predisposed baggage—at least at the beginning. The Universe literally imprints itself on the consciousness of an infant until they start to transition into childhood. My son is right at that stage—he’s becoming very aware (for better and for worse) of the world around him.
Initially, I think his grandfather was just that to him, but, over time, he’s become aware of the larger persona that exists. He’s most certainly less snarky about it than his dad, at least for now. In fact, recently, I had a moment when watching my movie that I thought to myself for a moment, “Wow, will my son judge me this way someday?” And the answer is that he probably will. Hopefully, he’ll be gentle.
EH: Acknowledging that your father has an enormous following, how did you craft your film with “Deepak devotees” in mind, or did you? What did you want people who are not necessarily fans to find out about him, both as a person and as a personality?
GC: I was conscious of it but not held to it. I couldn’t be. I think that would have suffocated me if I tried to make a film that was in service to his devotees or if I just took potshots at him because I could.
In the end, I think his fan base will get to see a side of him that may surprise them—simple stuff that comes with the territory when you poke a camera behind the curtain. But beyond that—and perhaps for the people that only know him because of his ubiquitous twitter handle or social media iconography—I think they’ll see that, for all of the spiritual and scientific certainty that is his “brand,” there’s an underlying humanity to which is underpinned. There’s a fallibility and curiosity and tenuous need to be accepted and to belong, and that’s very familiar and relatable. Life is fragile, and life is precious. It’s not be taken for granted nor to be taken too seriously, and, at the end of it, hopefully we’ll have made some sort of positive impact in the world. I think my dad has, and I’m happy for him.
CHECK OUT ONE OF MY FAVORITE DEEPAK BOOKS: