Deepak Chopra is that strange hybrid of celebrity and spiritual icon, known for his followers (Michael Jackson was a loyal fan) and diamond-bedazzled eyewear. But to his son Gotham, he’s just Dad.
In Gotham’s feature directorial debut (world premiering in the Headliners section at SXSW), “Decoding Deepak,” the filmmaker and journalist attempts to separate the man from myth by following him around the world for nearly a year. The resulting documentary is a remarkably honest portrait of Deepak, as seen through the eyes of someone who knows him best.
Indiewire sat down with the pair shortly following the film’s premiere in Austin.
This marks the first pit stop on the festival circuit with this film. I know it’s early in the process, but what’s this journey been like?
Deepak: I was sitting in the back, the room was full and no one walked out. So that’s a good sign.
Gotham: People seem really engaged. I was really curious how the SXSW audience would react, because they’re not the core audience. So that was very refreshing.
Gotham, you really don’t hold back in the film. At one point you say your father’s driven by an insatiable hunger to be relevant. I walked in expecting a simple love letter to your father and I got something a lot more complex and revelatory.
Gotham: Look, I’ve learned that from my father. He’s always been honest. He’s never gone out and told the world he’s the perfect spiritual being. I think he’s also been careful not to really debunk the images people have built around him. Not because he feels the need to live up to them, but because that’s an important part of other people’s spiritual journeys. In some ways, they need to believe certain things about him.
I think it’s an honest movie. But for me, that was the only way to make it.
Early in the film you establish that you led your father under false pretenses to make this film. You pitched it to him as a record of his ordainment in Thailand. Deepak, when did you come to realize what your son was actually making?
Deepak: Initially, I agreed to do it just because my son wanted me to do it. The big picture doesn’t matter to me. It’s his perspective, it’s honest and it’s actually quite true.
As he said, I’ve never projected a persona. I just write my thing. It’s like I sing in the bathroom and they like to hear the song. People like to project what they want. That’s the way the world works.
Were you wary of being documented in this way by someone so close to you?
Deepak: No. As I said, it’s more revealing than exposing.
When did you first see the film, Deepak?
Deepak: Just two weeks ago. There were parts I felt initially uncomfortable about. But then you get over it. That’s how I live my life, anyway.
Gotham, it must have been nerveracking showing it to your father.
Gotham: Yeah, I was nervous. But I also know my father well enough to know that he is comfortable with who he is.
Deepak: He’s a good storyteller. When he shows me on my Blackberry all the time — I’m not like that, in my opinion.
Gotham: He’s very comfortable with who he is. When we first did a screening a couple of months ago in Los Angeles — I don’t tell this story to namedrop — Lady Gaga was in the crowd. She said she liked it. And she said, “I really appreciate Deepak for who he is and for what I’ve gotten from him. I don’t necessarily have the need to decode him or deconstruct him.”
I think it’s an allegory for the movie. People see in him what they want to see in him. He’s at the stage in his career and life where he’s comfortable with who he is. So I don’t think he minds being decoded. Somebody like her who’s incredibly accomplished, but still young and figuring it out; she doesn’t want to be decoded. So it’s less about him and more about her desire not to.
In ‘decoding’ your father Gotham, what did you learn?
Gotham: I realized almost early on the film, as much as it was about him, it was also about me. So it was about figuring out who I want to be. It’s also about the questions that not only me, but we, as a culture are asking ourselves right now. Why are things the way there are? I think again, he’s become the symbol of that.
What did you learn about your son in watching the film?
Deepak: Nothing dramatically revealing. In our family, everybody’s totally honest about their appraisal of each other. I’ve known his point of view and my family’s all my life. They’re totally honest and I’m totally OK with that. You know the thing is, people don’t understand that every human being has contradiction, has paradox, has ambiguity. That’s the nature of human existence. We project onto others what we want to be. But when we really deconstruct them, they’re just like us. That message does come through, I think.
How long did you two spend together making this film?
Gotham: We spent eight or so months on the road. Obviously we went to some exotic places — it’s a big film in that way.
Deepak: I was going to some of them, anyway.
You don’t typically follow your father around the world — what was that like?
Gotham: No. I’ve been on some of those trips growing up. I dragged him to India for that part of the film. I needed to find a way to have a conclusion to the film.
The film makes clear that you two are very close. Did the film bring you two any closer?
Deepak: We’ve been bonded all our lives. We already spend a lot of time together. We speak to each other every day, many times over.
Gotham: The thing is, when you get past the celebrity aspect of it all, it’s a road trip movie. Fathers and sons go on road trips. Some go camping. I just happened to follow him as he got ordained in Thailand. But it’s a road trip movie and those movies have their own inherent structure. I think it took on that arc. You know, you grow closer in moments but we’ve always been close, so I don’t know how much closer you can get than that.
Was making a standard biopic of your father ever of interest to you, Gotham? In the film, you gloss over his entire career during the credit sequence.
Gotham: I couldn’t. I mean, obviously I entered this project with my eyes wide open. This was never about doing some weird expose, getting skeletons out of the closet. On the other hand, I knew I wasn’t some objective filmmaker. Still though, I’m the only one who could have made this film. Some filmmakers have wanted to make films about him, but I don’t think they’d do justice to what he’s built. It would be this removed, detached biopic.
More than demystify Deepak for his loyal followers, the film exposes your feelings towards your father and his career.
Gotham: I think the arc of me is that I start out as a cynical, snarky son. I played that up to some degree. I mean it’s there, but any time you’re condensing anything down to an hour-and-a-half, you’re choosing places to skillfully edit and find that narrative. So the arc starts with me poking fun, saying he’s not as spiritual as you may think. But then around the mid-point, the fact that this guy is human and that he asks questions, it makes the spiritual journey that we’re all on that much more impactful because we come to realize he’s a real person. He’s not a guy who’s perfected all of these insights. He’s still asking these questions. The son understands that he’s more powerful than his predecessors, because he’s real. He’s in the real world. He’s on Twitter. He’s in New York City.
Deepak: If he found himself in the film, it was when we went to India. It was his idea to go there. I’ve been there many times.
Gotham: So much of the movie is a metaphorical search for identity. I’m a person who’s grounded in the real world. I needed to sort of find something real, something I could touch and feel. India, that journey back to that place — the codes are literal; they are written on a piece of paper. It’s amazing to go back to this tiny little village and see your ancestors. It forces you to go, “What do I want to communicate to my children and their children?”
The film documents briefly how you, Gotham, initially set out to follow in your father’s footsteps by spreading his making TV appearances alongside him and on your own. You’ve since stopped doing that. Do you feel making this film is a step back in a way?
Gotham: There are some people who love me because of who he is. I’m like the next in line. There are some people, like the Fox News people of the world, who are going to be critical no matter what you do. As an artist in general, you learn to detach yourself from those sorts of things.
I’m a storyteller. This is an important story obviously for me. It’s very close to me. But my storytelling won’t begin and end with my father. I’m enjoying it. This is what’s fun about this film; it’s a conversation starter.
Although you’re the focus of this film Deepak, your son’s more in the spotlight here at SXSW. What’s that been like for you?
Deepak: I’ve never been in the spotlight with my family, so it’s OK [laughs].