The Answer Review: A biopic that lacks artistic merit
Poor writing, the simplistic drawing up of purportedly powerful characters, and subpar direction relegate The Answer to highly ordinary territory
Before I begin this review, I must give readers fair warning. I am an atheist. While this may lead to some inherent biases along the course of this analysis, I will try hard to be as objective as I can. The Answer needs to be examined independently of the philosophy it attempts to proselytise. The film is a biopic of American, James Donald Walters (who later came to be known as Swami Kriyananda), one of the most influential disciples of Yoga guru, Paramhansa Yogananda.
Cast: Leonidas Gulaptis, Victor Bannerjee
Director: Pavan Kaul
The story, recounted as a mixture of interior monologue and dialogue, begins with Walters’ childhood in Romania of the late 1920s. The boy is raised in a loving and encouraging household. Sensitive to the often cruel and harsh world around him, Walters begins questioning the selfish motives and self-serving attitudes of most humans. As he advances in years, the family moves to Switzerland. The teenager, still racked by self-doubt and existential questions, gets bullied by his peers. He gets taken advantage of by even those who mask their ulterior motives with the extended hand of friendship. His parents worry about his seeming aimlessness and the failure to form a plan or goal for the future. The boy is convinced that his search for meaning, truth, and God, will lead him on the right path someday, but their scepticism does not cease.
Back in America, and now in college, Walters is left with a choice: Either travel with his mother and father to Cairo or continue his quest in the States. He chooses to stay back, and the chance reading of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda, sets him on course to meet the famed Indian guru – a meeting that will forever alter the state of his consciousness.
The problem I have with this dramatic re-telling of events is its artistic representation. The internal monologue and narration on the part of an adult Walters is too simplistic to glean any profundity or wisdom from. There is much truth to be gained from simplicity, make no mistake. But when theoretically high ideas are watered down to an almost-naïve level, it is hard to take them with any sort of seriousness.
The next obvious problem is the acting. Leonidas Gulaptis plays the adult James Donald Walters in such a stereotypical manner (the Western fetishization of Eastern philosophy and its roots, and so forth) that he comes across as an incredibly gullible man ready to believe anything without so much as a question on his lips. Even his queries posed to Yogananda baffle the mind with their over-simplification; you are left wondering if this man is in fact a child in grown-up form. Perhaps The New Path (the book on which the film is based) portrays Walters in the same way. I cannot tell, since I haven’t read it. But I sure hope that isn’t the case. I do understand that a story/film such as this (leave, for an instant, how ordinarily it is presented) requires faith in God or a higher power or an invisible construct, to be understood. And, faith is not an argument. You either have it or you don’t. All that is fine. But must one famous man’s journey of self-realisation and spirituality be adapted in an unintelligent and uncreative a manner as this?
Victor Bannerjee as Paramhansa Yogananda, does a better job than any of the others in the film, but even his character is not given the depth one would associate with a spiritual teacher of wide-ranging influence. So many scenes leave you questioning the veracity of Walters’ account of events. His very first encounter with Yogananda, for instance. Walters travels to California to visit the renowned guru. Upon arrival, he is informed that the Yogi cannot meet him right away (there is a long waiting list for new devotees and disciples). And yet (the presence of another young man sitting in the foyer for three months for an audience, notwithstanding), Walters is summoned by Yogananda after merely five minutes.
Then there’s the undeniable hypocrisy to contend with. The Yogi preaches about the evils of wealth and materialism (in addition to ego, power, sex, and pride). In spite of this, much money is required to run his large holy establishment in California; the same money that the guru distributes to his disciples for the organisation of important lectures, gatherings, and events. There is a scene in which Yogananda invites two devotees out into nature during a torrential downpour. When they step outside with umbrellas and overcoats, it has suddenly turned sunny. The Yogi, dressed in a tailored suit (in stark contrast to his saintly orange robes) beside his fancy car, spreads out his arms and says something to the effect of, “I made the sun shine for you.” Are we to understand, by this display, that Paramhansa Yogananda is God incarnate?
The dialogue between master and pupil leaves much to be desired as well. The former tells Walters in an exchange, to “be more childish”, while shooting a fake plastic gun in his direction. The line should have been, “be more childlike”, surely? Poor writing, the simplistic drawing up of purportedly powerful characters, and subpar direction relegate The Answer to highly ordinary territory. Objectively speaking, even believers ought to question the artistic merit of this story of divine awakening. It would have been best to stick to the documentary format to deliver a more meaningful and philosophical take on the subject.