“3 Idiots” - Rajkumar Hirani (2009)

3 Idiots (2009) is an immensely popular college comedy-drama that was very well received by the critical community [1,2,3,4,5,6] and has won numerous awards both in India and abroad [7].  Directed by Rajkumar Hirani and scripted by Hirani, Abhijat Joshi, and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the story of the film is loosely based on Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone (2004).  In addition, 3 Idiots features a compelling performance by popular lead actor Aamir Khan in the lead role.  The story of 3 Idiots concerns what happens to three students who meet and become friends after being initially assigned to room together as students at the prestigious Imperial College of Engineering in Delhi (ICE). 

Although the film spends much of its time wallowing in the throes of sometimes vulgar screwball comedy, there is also some narrative width to the plot, and this may expand the film’s appeal for some viewers.  In particular, there is a thoughtful thematic element concerning how best to educate students and the current deficiencies of educational systems in general.  These educational system deficiencies, I should add, are not only present in India, but are characteristic of educational systems at all levels all over the world.

The three students who meet at ICE, i.e. the “3 Idiots”, have all been sent there by their hopefully ambitious parents to study engineering. They are:
  • Ranchoddas "Rancho" Shamaldas Chanchad (played by Aamir Khan).  This personage will be identified with two other characters in the story, and this mistaken-identity element will add a fascinating twist to the narrative.
  • Farhan Qureshi (played by Madhavan)
  • Raju Rastogi (Sharman Joshi)
In addition to those 3 Idiots, there are three other characters who have prominent roles in the story:
  • Chatur Ramalinga (Omi Vaidya) is also an engineering student at ICE.  He is very smart, but he is from Tamil-speaking Pondicherry and so is not very conversant in Hindi.
  • Dr. Viru Sahastrabuddhe (Boman Irani), called “Virus” by the students, is the strict and domineering director of ICE.
  • Pia Sahastrabuddhe (Kareena Kapoor) is Virus's younger daughter and is studying medicine to become a doctor.   She will become the object of Rancho’s romantic interests in the story.
With this mix we can discern five narrative threads that drive what happens in the film.
  1. The Idiots vs. Virus 
    Virus is a doctrinaire college director who lives according to a rigid schedule and seems to want all his students to be submissive robots.  The 3 Idiots, led by Rancho, are, in contrast, rebellious and free-spirited.  So Virus naturally sees them as enemies in need of punishment.
  2. Rancho vs. Chatur Rancho and Chatur are natural rivals.  Both are smart, but they embody fundamentally contrasting ways to learn.
  3. Rancho and Pia
    Rancho and Pia are, on the surface, an unlikely duo.  But their natural attractiveness and spark, as well as adventitious narrative circumstances, bring them together.
  4. Farhan and his family
    Farhan comes from a middle-class family, and his strict father is determined to see to it that his son graduates from ICE with an engineering degree.  But Farhan’s real passion is wildlife photography, which is a far less lucrative profession.
  5. Raju and his family
    Raju’s family is desperately impoverished, and their only hope is for Raju to graduate from ICE and get a good job.  The possibility that he might fail in this effort makes the sensitive Raju suicidal at one point.
The film begins in the “present”, ten years after the initial events in this story, when Farhan, Raju, and Chatur meet up at ICE and are looking for Rancho, whom they haven’t seen in years.  They get a clue that Rancho may be in Shimla, up north of Delhi, so they head out on the road to look for him. Then the focus shifts to ten years earlier when Rancho, Farhan, and Raju met as freshmen at ICE.  There they are faced with the demanding academic requirements and social structure that new ICE students must face.

Right away it is clear that Rancho is a creative iconoclast who continually comes up with novel ways to look at things and solve problems.  And, of course, his ways don’t sit well with Virus, which presents numerous comedic opportunities in this part of the film.

At one point the mischievous boys are looking for good food and crash a wedding party, which just happens to be for Virus’s older daughter, Mona Sahastrabuddhe (Mona Singh).  At the party Rancho meets Mona’s pretty younger sister, Pia, who is a medical school intern at a city hospital.  The two of them engage in witty banter, and we can guess that this is not the last time we will see the two of them together.

Later Chatur has to give an honorary speech on a college celebration day, but since he doesn’t know Hindi very well, he needs to memorize the whole text.  Unfortunately for him, his rival Rancho has made a few off-color modifications to the text he has to memorize, which turns the speech into a hilarious expression of ribaldry.  After Chatur’s embarrassing experience he challenges Rancho to meet him ten years later and see which one of them is more successful (and it is this hoped-for meeting that is shown at the start of the film).

Critical medical emergencies occasion some further encounters involving Pia and Rancho, including one saving Raju’s father, who is desperately ill, and one providing emergency assistance for the delivery of sister Mona’s baby.  Each of these desperate occasions combine Pia’s medical know-how and Rancho’s engineering inventiveness to bring about a last-second rescue.  Later, after a fraternal drinking bout, Rancho’s two pals goad their inebriated friend into sneaking into Pia’s bedroom and declaring his love for her. 

Finally, after further madcap adventures, the three idiots manage to graduate, with Rancho placing at the top of the class.  But after the graduation ceremony, Rancho disappears, and Farhan and Raju lose sight of their friend.   This brings us up to the scene shown at the outset of the film when Farhan, Raju, and Chatur went off on a drive to find Rancho.  They pick up Pia along the way, and they do eventually find Rancho.  But there are further issues to be addressed and unravelled, including just who is Rancho – his real identity has been a mystery.  Nevertheless, the film does end on a high comedic note and with all five narrative threads resolved in a satisfactory manner.

There are several dimensions along which we can take a look at 3 Idiots with respect to its overall virtues and vices.  On the production side of things, I liked the music, particularly the songs and the associated elaborate and exuberant choreography of “Aal Izz Well” (“All Is Well”) and “Zoobie Doobie”.  On the other hand, the acting was generally exaggerated and artificial, particularly the over-heated ham-acting performance of Boman Irani in the role of Virus.  The only saving grace on this front was the spirited performance of Aamir Khan as Rancho, which drives the film all the way.

A further detriment to the film, from my perspective anyway, was the relentless recourse to juvenile locker-room humor.  There are frequent references to and depictions of male farting and peeing, with the latter act sometimes used to defile the property of a despised superior.  In addition there are a number of instances of collective mooning – where some boys pull down their pants and expose their backsides to someone to whom they either wish to give an insult or to pay self-deprecating obeisance.  This kind of stuff may be considered to be hilarious by some teenagers, and it may help account for the film’s great popularity, but to me it was just foolish.

However, an offsetting positive element to the film was the delicate way the initially tentative romance between Pia and Rancho was presented and allowed to blossom.  This had a realistic feel to it that helped the viewer buy in to everything else that was going on and so increased overall enjoyment.

The most significant positive aspect of 3 Idiots, though, as I mentioned earlier, was its serious addressing of an important issue in society: how to educate people.  This is a critical concern not only for India, but for the whole world.  In this respect the conventional way to teach people is to get them to learn facts and then see if the  students can remember these facts when they are examined.  This is how ICE, as led by Virus, operated in this story. 

But we must be aware that there are actually two kinds of knowing – knowing what and knowing howKnowing what can be referred to as “knowledge”, and knowing how can be referred to as “skill” [8,9].  Knowledge can be written down in textual form and then memorized.  Skill, on the other hand, can only be learned by doing.  You don’t learn how to ride a bicycle from a textbook; you must get on a bicycle and learn how to do it, yourself. 

Both knowledge and skills are important to learn, but most educational institutions just concentrate on teaching knowledge.  Why?  Because knowledge is so much easier and more economical to teach.  For teaching knowledge, one can have a lecturer stand before a large class of students and present factual knowledge to them all simultaneously.  And, of course, in the Internet age of today, these economies of scale for knowledge teaching have drastically increased.  But to teach a skill, the teacher must often have a one-on-one interaction with the student. 

In addition, it is so much easier to examine students for their knowledge and then rank them precisely.  Measuring and ranking skills, on the other hand, is much more difficult.  So educational institutions the world over have opted to concentrate their focus on teaching knowledge.  But knowing skills – in particular (a) knowing how to work together as a team and (b) knowing how disparate objects and tools may work together to generate a synergistic effect – are crucially important and should not be left out of the educational curriculum.

This knowledge-vs-skills issue is directly addressed in 3 Idiots.  Virus represents the exclusive focus on knowledge, while Rancho represents and embodies the virtues of thinking in a skills-oriented way.  This distinction is well demonstrated on many occasions in the film.  Chatur bases his study on rote learning – he memorizes everything, but he doesn’t have a deep understanding of things.  Rancho, on the other hand, uses his more intuitive engineering know-how and teamwork instincts to help solve many real-world problems in this story.  Chatur gets good grades, but Rancho is the better student and the one we want to emulate.
So at the end of the film, we see Rancho (but now with his correct identity, Phunsukh Wangdu) teaching young people, via physical demonstrations and interactions, the way things work.  He is helping them to develop needed skills.  And that is the message we need to take home [8].

  1. Shubhra Gupta. “3 Idiots”, Indian Express, (25 December 2009).   
  2. Nikhat Kazmi, “3 Idiots Movie Review”, Times of India, (11 April 2016).  
  3. Gaurav Malani, “3 Idiots: Movie Review”, Times of India, (24 December 2009).   
  4. Lisa Tsering, “3 Idiots -- Film Review”, Hollywood Reporter, (29 December 2009).   
  5. David Chute, “Aamir Khan’s College Comedy, 3 Idiots”, The Village Voice, (9 February 2010).   
  6. Robert Abele, “‘Idiots’ team for jolly mayhem”, Los Angeles Times, (29 January 2010).   
  7. “List of accolades received by 3 Idiots”, Wikipedia, (20 January 2020).   
  8. Martin K. Purvis, Maryam A. Purvis, & Christopher Frantz “CKSW: A Folk-Sociological Meta-Model for Agent-Based Modelling”, Computational Social Science and Social Computer Science: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Social Path 2014), University of Surrey, UK (2014).   
  9. The Film Sufi, “‘Moneyball’ - Bennett Miller (2011)”, The Film Sufi, (8 August 2012).   

Rajkumar Hirani

Films of Rajkumar Hirani:
  • 3 Idiots - Rajkumar Hirani (2009)
  • PK - Rajkumar Hirani (2014)

“Casino” - Martin Scorsese (1995)

Martin Scorsese has won fame for a variety of films, but his signature productions have been his films about mobster life.  In particular we can point to what is now Scorsese’s tetralogy on the mafia, featuring in each case Robert De Niro in a pivotal role – Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Irishman (2019).  All four of those films are dark, but I would say the darkest one is Casino.

Like Goodfellas, Casino was based on a non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi, and both of those films were co-scripted by Scorsese and Pileggi.  In the case of Casino, Pileggi’s book was Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, and it was based on the real-life experiences of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro, two Chicago Syndicate gangsters who moved to Las Vegas to get involved in casino operations there.  But although Scorsese’s film here may have been inspired by facts, the finished product is so laden with such expressionistic colorings that one feels they can only could have come from a dark imagination.

The story of Casino begins with Sam "Ace" Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro) providing his voiceover-assisted account of events in his past that led to a car-bombing attack on his life in the early 1980s.  We are told that in 1973 Ace, a gambling expert for the Chicago Syndicate gangster organization, was sent to Las Vegas to take over the running of the casino in the Tangiers hotel there.  The casino was owned by the corrupt Teamster’s Union, which was allied with the Chicago Syndicate.  The Chicago Syndicate also sent Ace’s boyhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), to Las Vegas to look after shadier aspects of the mob’s activities.  Ace was just supposed to attend to the casino’s gambling operations, while Nicky was expected to employ his customarily brutal strong-arm actions to enforce the mob’s will. 

When Nicky appears in the story, his account of things is covered in voiceover, too, so the film now has two largely parallel voiceover-driven threads – Ace’s account mostly inside the casino and Nicky’s brutal coercion activities outside.  In both of these threads, reports of mob corruption are presented in brutal detail.  So much of the first two-thirds of this nearly three-hours-long film provides almost an instruction manual in how the mob swindled its customers and the government and in so doing made its fortune in Las Vegas.  In this respect critic Roger Ebert has commented [1]:
“Unlike his other Mafia movies ("Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas"), Scorsese's "Casino" is as concerned with history as with plot and character. The city of Las Vegas is his subject, and he shows how it permitted people like Ace, Ginger [I will come to her next], and Nicky to flourish, and then spit them out, because the Vegas machine is too profitable and powerful to allow anyone to slow its operation.”
So what about the personal narratives of Ace and Nicky?  Well, some of that starts to creep into the story.  Nicky’s relentlessly hot-tempered acts of vengeful violence, which even go beyond what the mob has sanctioned him to do, eventually get him banned from all the casino’s in Vegas.  Meanwhile Ace meets beautiful dancer and hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) and immediately falls madly in love with her.  Although Ginger is not so hot on Ace, Ace has by now built up a fortune from his gambling activities, and he lures her with money and jewels.  Ginger is essentially hedonistic and greedy, and she can’t really resist Ace’s enticements; and so she eventually agrees to marry him.  Although they soon have a child, their marriage begins to fall apart because of Ginger’s self-centeredness and wandering eye.  In particular, Ginger can’t let go of her old boyfriend, Lester Diamond (James Woods), who seems to be nothing but a good-for-nothing lowlife.  Eventually Ace finds out about Ginger’s continued affair with Lester and also discovers that Lester has just swindled Ginger out of $25,000.  So he arranges for Nicky and his thugs to brutally beat up Lester and put him permanently out of the way.  Ginger then sinks into depression and alcoholism.  After some more disputes with Sam, Ginger even starts a sexual affair with Nicky, which after some further machinations eventually leads to their mutual estrangement.

Finally, the FBI begins to get wind of what the viewer has been informed of all along – that the Syndicate’s operation in Las Vegas has been cheating in its business operations and also skimming the casinos’ profits off the top in order to avoid paying taxes.  The FBI begin closing in on the culprits in the late 1970s and discovering more and more details about the illegal operations.  So the mob bosses respond by beginning to kill off any of their underlings whom they fear might make deals with the authorities and squeal on them.  This is what is behind the murderous attacks on both Ace and Nicky late in the story.

In the end what we have is, as Roger Ebert suggested, more of a historical account of the mafia’s pernicious operations in Las Vegas casinos and not so much of a narrative concerning interesting characters.  After all, the principal characters in Casino – Ace Rothstein, Nicky Santoro, and Ginger McKenna – are all greedy and seem to be only interested in money.  Actually, there are some other personality traits associated to varying degrees with these characters, such as egotistical pride, personal dominance, and revenge.  But these are all of the same narcissistic stripe.

So there are no sympathetic characters here to draw the viewer’s interest into a compelling narrative journey [2].  This is not atypical of a Scorsese film, as I remarked in connection with my review of Goodfellas [3]:      
Actually, narrative structure is not one of Scorsese’s strongest points.  He is something of a master in creating a social milieu, often employing improvisational, ensemble acting that captures the spontaneity of a group situation.  But many times the engaging social environment never encompasses any real narrative goals, and the episodic story just seems to tail off at the end of the film, without achieving any closure.
So does that mean that Casino has nothing of interest for the viewer?  I would say that there is something of interest here, and that is due to Scorsese’s compelling, expressionistic cinematography.  What Scorsese, together with cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, have given us is a cinematic depiction of Hell.  The film features an incessant stream of winding tracking shots that endlessly pull the viewer down through disturbing, confined spaces that evoke a vague psychological feeling of entrapment.  These tracking shots are embellished with countless sweeping swish pans that also contribute to the viewer’s sense of disorientation.  In this way the viewer is drawn into a labyrinthine nightmare that was paradoxically created by man for man.  The patrons of the casino, who are suckers drawn into this serpentine inferno, are fecklessly looking for good luck.  But the notions of honesty and fair play are nonexistent there, and there is no chance that good fortune will befall them.  In fact even the vendors in this hell – Ace, Ginger, and Nicky – are unknowingly and hopelessly trapped in it, too. 

So it is Scorsese’s vivid, expressionistic presentation of a nightmarish setting that may ultimately appeal to some viewers of Casino.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Casino”, RogerEbert.com, (22 November 1995).    
  2. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Casino”, Austin Chronicle, (22 November 1995).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Goodfellas’ - Martin Scorsese”, The Film Sufi, (7 March 2013).   

“The Crying Game” - Neil Jordan (1992)

Those of you familiar with my essays know that I usually like to discuss the narrative structure of a film under review, because that structure, and the way it is expressed in cinematic form, are such significant factors in film aesthetics.  Some people might think that this gives away too much of the story, but I think that knowing how a plot comes out in the end does not normally diminish one’s enjoyment of a good story.  I know how Romeo and Juliet and Citizen Kane come out, but I still enjoy seeing them again.  It is similar to the way I still like listening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, even though I have heard it many times.  But I do make some exceptions to this practice.  This is because there are a few films that have such extravagant plot twists near the end that they offer a uniquely special experience to first-time viewers with no prior knowledge of the story.  I could mention The Usual Suspects (1995) along these lines, but the quintessential film, for me, in this category is The Crying Game (1992). 

So for the sake of those who have not yet seen The Crying Game and don’t know about its story, I will try to discuss it here without fully revealing its remarkable plot secret.  Note I am not talking here about just some mystery film having some red-herring plot elements that deliberately try to mislead the viewer with false clues and bogus suspects.  The secret in The Crying Game lies at the very soul of the tale.  Nevertheless, even if you do know about this film’s secret, the film is still very much worth seeing, and it holds up on repeated viewings.  In fact I would say that The Crying Game, secret revealed or not, is one of the greatest films ever made.

The basic narrative of The Crying Game is, itself, rather complicated, because it starts off telling one story and then makes a drastic shift in location and direction to tell another, seemingly different, story.  In fact I would say that the film actually comprises three relatively separate stories that are told sequentially but are linked thematically. This sophisticated story structure helped earn the film’s writer-director, Neil Jordan, an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  (Jordan, by the way, is well-known for another film that he wrote and directed and that had a sophisticated narrative structure, Mona Lisa (1987)).  The Crying Game went on to earn nominations for five other Oscars (for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Editing), and it received seven similar nominations for BAFTA awards.  And unsurprisingly, the film was very well received by a range of top film critics [1,2,3,4,5].

The story of The Crying Game concerns the experiences of a young Irishman, Fergus (played by Stephen Rea), who is a committed member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) paramilitary terrorist group.  But the identity of Fergus goes beyond that of an IRA member, and in fact a person’s real identity, who he or she really is, is a fundamental issue of this film.  Films that pursue this existential issue of a person’s authentic identity often feature a male ingenue in the lead role.  Think, for example, of some films starring Anthony Perkins, such as On the Beach (1959), Phaedra (1962), or The Trial (1962).  Or think of some of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, like Vertigo (1958), which has been said to be Neil Jordan’s favorite movie [6].  In such films there is a man perplexed about the identity of a person he encounters, and in the pursuit of the authentic identity of that person, he comes to know more about himself.  And that is what makes these films memorable.
The Crying Game begins at a fairground where a seductive IRA member, Jude (Miranda Richardson), flirts with and lures a black British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), into a secluded spot where he can be captured by other members of her IRA unit.  The IRA’s intention is to hold Jody hostage and offer him in a proposed prisoner-swap with the British Army who are holding one of the IRA’s own members.  If the British don’t agree to the swap within three days, the IRA says they will execute Jody.  During this waiting time for a British response, Jody is to be held prisoner by IRA member Fergus (Stephen Rea) in a rustic location. 

Now alone together in a secluded greenhouse, the more loquacious Jody draws the taciturn Fergus into  a conversation, and the two of them gradually get to know each other.  As they warm to each other, Jody talks about the inner nature of a person and insists that he can tell that Fergus is not basically a bad person.  In this connection he relates to Fergus the ancient fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog” [7]:

    A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream and the
    scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back.
    The frog asks, "How do I know you won't sting me?"
    The scorpion says, "Because if I do, I will die too."
    The frog is satisfied, and they set out,
    but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog.
    The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink,
    knowing they both will drown,
    but has just enough time to gasp, "Why?"
    Replies the scorpion: "Its my nature..."

So already the idea of one’s inner nature explicitly comes to the fore.

Jody also tells Fergus that he knows the IRA will never let him go alive, and that they will certainly kill him first.  So he shows Fergus a picture of his beloved girlfriend, Dil, and he says that after the IRA kills him, he would like Fergus to go look her up in London and look after her.
A bit later a situation arises for Jody to try to escape from Fergus.  As he runs through the woods with Fergus in close pursuit, Jody confidently yells out to his pursuer that he knows he would never shoot someone in the back.  This turns out to be true.  However, accidental circumstances associated with a British army surprise attack on the IRA hideout lead to Jody getting run over by a truck.  So Jody dies, anyway.  This is the end of the first story.

The second story shifts to London, where Fergus has fled.  He now calls himself “Jimmy”, his hair is cut shorter, and he has a job as a lowly construction worker.  Eventually, he tracks down Jody’s girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson), who is a vivacious young hairdresser of mixed race.  He introduces himself to her and gets his hair cut, but he doesn’t tell her about what happened to Jody, and his own part in her lover’s death.  Fergus also tracks Dil to a cocktail bar, The Metro, which she likes to frequent and which allows talented amateurs to sing songs to musical accompaniment.  On one occasion she movingly sings before a captivated bar audience the 1960's hit song “The Crying Game”, and this is one of the high points of the film.

But Fergus can see that Dil’s sensual attractiveness and natural, unguarded ebullience leaves her vulnerable to sexual bullies and predators.  So he finds himself stepping in to protect her from the thugs chasing after her.  Although Fergus may be a somewhat laconic male ingenue, he is still a tough guy and very handy with his fists. 

Eventually, after several such episodes, Dil and Fergus find themselves increasingly attracted to each other, and they finally fall passionately in love.  But Fergus still hasn’t revealed to Dil anything about his violent past and his partial culpability in Jody’s death.  And it turns out that Dil has her own significant secret, too.

Then we come to the third phase of the film, the third story segment, which I will leave for you to discover.  It does involve the IRA getting back into the picture, more killings, and more acts of deception.  In the end we can observe that Fergus has avoided carrying out two murders that he was ordered to commit and then finally confessing to a real murder that he did not commit.  But in the process he has been true to his own inner nature, and he has learned what he truly cares about.  And Dil has learned that, too.

As I mentioned, a key theme of The Crying Game is the nature of a person’s true identity.  In this film we see that there are complications associated with political, sexuality, nationality, and racial identity that can obscure from us what are the most important things about life.  So is identity what this film is ultimately about?  I would say, no.  This film is fundamentally about love.  Identity is a key, and often obscuring, instrument in our lives, but what we ultimately seek and need is love.  When we find true love, we are joining together with our beloved in accordance with our innermost nature, our innermost being.  This is what The Crying Game tells us.

To tell such a tale so that we get the message requires an outstanding script and excellent production values.  And it also requires brilliant and sensitive acting performances, which is what we get from Stephen Rea, Forest Whitaker, and especially Jaye Davidson.

Remember what this film tells us via what Fergus and Dil discovered.  Your own innermost nature is not that of the scorpion; it is that of the lover.

  1. Marjorie Baumgarten, “The Crying Game”, The Austin Chronicle, (18 December 1992).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “The Crying Game”, RogerEbert.com, (18 December 1992).   
  3. Hal Hinson, “‘The Crying Game’ (R)”, The Washington Post, (18 December 1992).   
  4. Kenneth Turan, “An Unusually Satisfying ‘Game’”, Los Angeles Times, (25 November 1992).    
  5. Richard Corliss, “Queuing For The Crying Game”, Time, (24  June 2001).   
  6. Jack Watkin, “How we made The Crying Game”, (Interviews with Neil Jordan and Miranda Richardson), The Guardian, (21 February 2017).   
  7. “The Scorpion and the Frog”, Aesop’s Fables Online, (n.d.).   

Neil Jordan

Films of Neil Jordan:

“Awake: The Life of Yogananda” - Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman (2014)

Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2014) is a biographical film about the most famous and important propagator/proselytizer of Indian yoga culture in America, Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) [1,2,3].  The form of yoga that Yogananda introduced and taught in the U.S.A. was not the popular physical exercise practice known as Hatha Yoga, but was instead a traditional Indian philosophy and meditation practice known as Kriya Yoga.  Yogananda came to the U.S. as a young man in 1920 and resided there for much of the rest of his life, becoming a local symbol of Indian spirituality.  His Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) [4,5], which I highly recommend to you, remains one of the most famous spiritual books ever written and has sold over four million copies.

The film Awake: The Life of Yogananda, which was directed by Paola di Florio and Lisa Leeman, traces over much of the material covered in the autobiography, but it also includes a large collection of comments from a range of famous contemporary advocates of Yogananda’s teaching.  These include musicians Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, spiritual vocalist Krishna Das, alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra, and controversial rap music producer Russell Simmons.  However, I thought there were too many “talking heads” in this film offering their disparate opinions on Yogananda’s teaching.   Much of it was thematically repetitive, and after awhile this becomes distracting.  The most effective material is that which comes from the authentic source: Yogananda, himself.

The film starts with a brief introduction of Kriya Yoga and then begins tracing key elements in Yogananda’s life.  One important event was when he was seventeen and while walking along a back street in Banaras (Varanasi), he momentarily exchanged glances with a stranger whom he unaccountably seemed to recognize.  He quickly realized that this stranger, Swami Sri Yukteswar, was his long dreamed-of holy master, who would become his spiritual guide.  He thereupon spent ten years in his master’s hermitage, and he setup his own secondary school in Ranchi to teach boys both academic subjects and Kriya Yoga.

In 1920 Yogananda responded to an inner spiritual call and left India to go to Boston in the United States in order to offer public lectures.  There he was received as an exotic Eastern mystic in a country that was much less cosmopolitan than it is today.  Although another famous Indian yogi, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), had earlier visited the U.S. and made an impression on the public, Yogananda remained in Boston for a longer period, three years, and he made a more lasting mark. 

After some further travels and lectures about the country, Yogananda arrived in Los Angeles in 1925 and established on nearby Mount Washington his headquarters for the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF).  There his fame and that of his teaching continued to grow.  The film does refer, however, to some negative things that happened during the subsequent years that I don’t remember reading about in the autobiography. 

One negative thing was the falling-out that took place between Yogananda and his SRF assistant, Swami Dhirananda (Basu Kumar Bagchi).  Dhirananda had been Yogananda’s boyhood friend, but their breakup led finally to an ugly lawsuit and a complete parting of ways.  Another adverse circumstance of this period was the raucous and malicious mudslinging against Yogananda that was undertaken by conservative Christian groups.  In addition, Yogananda was even placed under surveillance by the FBI during 1926–1937 in connection with concerns about the Indian independence movement of those days.

In response to another inner “call”, Yogananda returned to India in 1935 to visit his master, Sri Yukteswar, who seemed to be well on his arrival.  But not long afterwards, Sri Yukteswar unexpectedly passed away, suggesting that the “call” Yogananda had received was to give him the opportunity to see his master one last time.  Afterwards, Yogananda returned to America and devoted himself to writing prolifically on spiritual subjects during his remaining years.

Much of what is revealed about Yogananda in this film is interesting but not startling.  However, there were two aspects of his teaching that I thought were particularly intriguing.  One is concerned with his professed affinity for the teaching of Jesus Christ.  In fact Yogananda frequently quotes or cites the teachings of Jesus from the Gospels, and he seems to regard Jesus Christ’s teachings as perfectly in line with his own Yogic tradition.  Yogananda even wrote a posthumously published two-volume work that offered his detailed commentary on Christ’s teachings [6,7].  And I would say that Yogananda’s warm embrace of Jesus’s words has very likely greatly enhanced his reception from Americans over the years.

A second noteworthy aspect of Yogananda’s teaching is his insistence that Kriya Yoga is not a religious offering at all but is instead a set of scientific truths.  In other words, he says Kriya Yoga is a practical science.  I am willing to go along with the general idea of this assertion, but I have found it disturbing to read in his autobiography that both he and his master, Swami Sri Yukteswar, believed in astrology.  Astrology is a provably falsified pseudoscience, and it has nothing to do with spirituality, or even with mindful existence.  Like black magic, astrology belongs to the realm of charlatanry.  
Nevertheless, I am willing to believe that Kriya Yoga (and other meditation-advocating practices) may have sound underpinnings to its methods.  This is emphasized by one of the film’s talking heads whom I did find worth listening to, Dr. Anita Goel.  Dr. Goel is a young double-doctorate scientist, with both a Ph.D. in physics and a M.D. from Harvard, and she suggests that Yogananda’s insights will ultimately help usher in a new revolution in our scientific understanding.  In this connection she asserts that whereas Einstein’s revolutionary discoveries in the 20th century helped establish the notion that the world is made up of just two fundamental and irreducible elements –  matter and energy – now in the 21st century we will have to move to an understanding that there are three fundamental and irreducible elements of reality –  matter,  energy, and consciousness.  In support of her high regard for Yogananda’s perspicacity in this area, Dr. Goel points out in this film that Yogananda’s teachings explicitly articulated the notion of neuroplasticity [8] well before that phenomenon was confirmed by scientific measurement.  

Overall, thanks largely to Anita Goel’s commentary and the considerable and fascinating archival footage showing Yogananda at various stages of his life’s journey, I recommend this film to you, even if you have already read Yogananda’s autobiography.

  1. Anita Gates,"When Being a Yogi Had an Exotic Air - 'Awake,' About the Life of Paramahansa Yogananda", The New York Times, (9 October 2014).   
  2. Stephanie Merry, "'Awake: The Life of Yogananda' Movie Review", The Washington Post, (30 October 2014).   
  3. Sandra Hall, "Awake: the life of a Yoga pioneer", The Sydney Morning Herald, (27 June 2015).    
  4. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, The Philosophical Library, (1946).
  5. “Autobiography of a Yogi”, Wikipedia, (25 January 2020).   
  6. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You, Self-Realization Fellowship, (2004).
  7. “The Second Coming of Christ (book)”, Wikipedia, (23 January 2020).   
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015), pp. 239-246.

Lisa Leeman

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Paola di Florio

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