Evincing both bemused skepticism and ardent curiosity, Gotham Chopra searches for the man behind the mythos that has grown around his famous father in “Decoding Deepak,” an up-close portrait of the spiritual icon suitable for theatrical and home-screen exhibition. The younger Chopra draws upon archival footage and newly recorded interviews, as well as his own observations during a year of journeying with his peripatetic dad, to fashion a briskly paced docu that should fascinate the elder Chopra’s admirers and perhaps convert some critics. Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, the pic is by turns amusing and illuminating, and often both simultaneously.
The slickly produced, visually arresting docu kicks off with Gotham sounding very much like countless other children of famous parents as he claims that, despite Deepak’s international celebrity and seemingly ubiquitous presence in pop culture, his father remains in some ways a mystery to him. At the same time, however, the helmer feels so inextricably bound to his dad — and not just because of their occasional professional collaborations — that he feels an instinctive need to establish his own identity.
“Sometimes,” Gotham pointedly notes early on, “I am barely able to tell where he ends and I begin.” This appears to be one of the chief reasons for the road trip central to “Decoding Deepak,” a transcontinental trek that begins with the elder 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.
Along the way, Gotham delights in focusing on his father’s quirks, such as Deepak’s obsessive attachment to his Blackberry, even while preparing for his ordination. In this way, the director reveals the human side of a man widely revered (by everyone from anonymous acolytes to Lady Gaga) 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.
Gradually, there emerges a portrait of a smart, self-aware multihyphenate — bestselling author, spiritual counselor, pop-culture luminary, alternative-medicine savant, multimedia superstar — who’s largely comfortable in his role as head of a veritable one-man enlightenment industry, but who admits to occasional excesses of pride and periods of troubling self-doubt.
When Rita Chopra (Deepak’s wife and Gotham’s mom) notes, not unaffectionately, that if her husband “didn’t have an audience, it would be a problem,” Deepak doesn’t argue. Indeed, he admits to a variety of all-too-human failings, recalling at one point that, as an intern working in an emergency room, he was repeatedly jazzed by the excitement: “I would enjoy the bleeding. I hate to say it, but I would enjoy the suffering.”
Fortuitously, “Decoding Deepak” captures its subject during what evidently was for him an unusually introspective stretch: At the time of production, he was 65, coping with the recent death of a colleague and, judging by what the pic reveals, conspicuously 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.