Early in "Decoding Deepak," the titular spiritualist and his filmmaker son float languidly over Thailand's Chao Phraya river delta, on their way to the former's ordination as a Buddhist monk. "Don't try to make sense of it, just roll the cameras and try to keep up," the director sighs. Mission accomplished.
Gotham Chopra's fitfully engaging new documentary travels between Bangkok, New York, and New Delhi, trying to find the "real" Deepak. Gotham's refreshing skepticism is admirable, especially because it is turned on his own father, and the portrait that emerges is less than flattering. Deepak, we find, is a spiritualist obsessed with the temporal, a prophet of mindfulness whose eyes flicker down to his phone with abandon, a supposedly enlightened figure whose quest for fame and "relevance," as Gotham puts it, remains "insatiable."
As an exposé of sorts, "Decoding Deepak" works, to a point and in spurts. But other than the added twist of the father/son dynamic, it's not audacious to suggest that the elder Chopra's endless mantras, platitudes, and aphorisms conjure an emperor without clothes. Thus it seems self-evident that "creativity — higher guidance — transcendence" is not a design for living but a code for selling books, no more penetrable than a corporate algorithm. Brave though it may be for the filmmaker to question his subject's sincerity, the documentary refuses to push the next logical claim: if one has enough to say on a topic to merit 60 books, perhaps one isn't saying anything at all.
There is, as Gotham admits, no making sense of it. The filmmaker prefers to poke at his father's steely enigma than develop the loose ends of the "real" story. In "Decoding Deepak" the person being decoded is the director himself. Archival footage of morning show appearances and spots on Larry King present Gotham, now regretful of those wasted years, lip-syncing his father's lines. He got into broadcast journalism and then documentary filmmaking, he tells us, because he was tired of talking. He wanted to listen.
If only he had listened to his own instincts: hidden within the celebrity worship and meaningless talk of "Decoding Deepak" is the story of a distant father and a wayward prodigal, "The Master" in miniature. In an ingenious moment, Deepak describes the ending he envisions for the film, and Gotham halfway obliges, animating his father's words with stock footage of pulsing cells and bursts of stars. It comes 15 minutes in. Gotham nods at such secret shoals and tacit challenges, lamenting the "script" they always follow, acknowledging that the film may be "about us, about me."
In the end, though, after inscribing a message for his own son in a book of ancestors tucked amid the narrow passages of a remote Indian town, Gotham relents, and lets his father have the film's last words. Against the tactile firmness of the pen on paper, of a simple accounting of who the Chopras have been, and hope to be, the words seem as meaningless as ever. "Where is the 'I' that really exists?" Deepak asks. "Everywhere." And, in "Decoding Deepak," nowhere.
"Decoding Deepak" is now playing in Santa Monica and New York, and on demand via SnagFilms.