The week before I left for India, I was in Los Angeles working on the Ananda Movie, formerly Cities of Light, now called Finding Happiness. The filming finished in October, and since then the director, Ted Nicolau, has been working with two talented editors (who also contribute as well as implementing on the computer the directions Ted gives), have been hard at work preparing what is called “The Director’s Cut.”
The variations that are possible from raw footage are literally infinite, and a movie is created as much in the editing room as it is in front of the camera.
At one point, in the midst of filming, I expressed some question to Ted about how some of the scenes had developed. He said to me, “I have never met a film that couldn’t be saved in the editing room.” He has been decades in the film industry so this was reassuring.
For months it had been on the schedule that on January 7 the first screening of this first version would be shown to a small group, including Shivani, Santoshi, and me, as well as a handful of the key professional filmmakers who have been on the project since the beginning.
Naturally we have been eagerly anticipating this moment. An appropriate screening room was rented and we all assembled at 10 am on that Monday in a very classy room with comfortable leather chairs. The first screening of the director’s cut is a big deal in the movie making business. And we were no exception.
The moment the screening started, I felt a rush of joy. Nothing was showing at that moment except the words “Hansa Productions” but somehow the power of the film was already there. My “intuition,” in the moment, for whatever it is worth, was that this movie would touch the lives of countless people all over the world.
I also felt, interestingly, in the same moment, that cynical people would be compelled to reject it. The positive, joyful innocence of it would be more than they could accept. Wherever there is light there is also darkness.
That instant positive reaction was only reinforced as the movie unfolded. Ted never appears in the film but he is without doubt the star of the movie. He took the raw footage and edited it together with consummate skill and sensitivity.
The best way I can describe it is to say that we have made a movie about Ananda, as it really is. It was a fine line to walk, to make a movie about our own community and not have it come out as an “infomercial” or merely self-promotion. I feel we avoided all those obvious pitfalls and instead simply, sincerely, and beautifully presented ourselves with humility, intelligence, humor, and joy. In other words, we played ourselves.
Unfortunately, the protocol of movie making is that these early versions are kept strictly under wraps, because a movie evolves a great deal from that first screening to what is finally released. They say a movie gets 50% better in that cycle. So you’ll all have to wait until that is done. But it is only a few more months -- late March or early April we’ll all be able to view it.
After the first screening, we sat in those comfortable leather chairs, then over a lunch table and made a list of what needed to be done to improve the film. The heart of the film -- the interviews with Swamiji and the Ananda people -- needed some tweaking here and there, but no substantial changes. Ted had already done a superb job with it.
But many of the interviews are illustrated with archival footage and still shots of Ananda at various stages of its development. We had not provided Ted with sufficient material for some of the scenes, so we had to mobilize a gathering of more material. By the time all the changes were enumerated, Ted and his co-workers had a solid couple of days of work.
Santoshi, Shivani, and I also took a copy and spent all of a day going frame by frame, making notes of everything we thought could be improved, which we later shared with Ted.
Shivani and Santoshi have been working with a publicity and distribution company, planning out a campaign for getting the movie in front of the public. The head of that effort, a woman named Penny, has not visited Ananda, or met Swamiji, and was not part of the filming team. Her husband, Frank, is a key person in the production, but she hasn’t been involved.
So all the planning that they have been doing has been based on what Penny learned through the internet about Ananda, and what Shivani and Santoshi have shared with her. She has experience of this genre of film -- something intended to raise consciousness -- but of Ananda she had no experience.
They had a meeting set for Thursday, and on Wednesday Penny received a copy of the Director’s Cut with some of the recommended changes already incorporated. That evening for the first time she saw the film she has contracted to distribute. She loved it. After watching it, she said she just wanted to get in her car and drive straight to Ananda!
At the Thursday morning meeting, the whole distribution strategy was changed, because Penny felt the potential of the movie was far greater than she had imagined. Before, she felt we would have to generate our own “buzz” around the film, building interest from the ground up. Maybe, after we did enough of that, a distributor would see that it has traction and would take it on.
Apparently the movie from a few years ago, The Secret, got going in that way, as well as others whose names we would now recognize.
After seeing it, Penny felt that the movie could go straight to a global distributor, that it would be sufficiently magnetic right out of the gate. That is a huge change in strategy, with enormous potential for a much quicker and larger global response.
I should add, Penny has been in the business for decades. Her mother was in the business before her, so she knows whereof she speaks. She herself is a perfect example of the broader audience we are trying to reach. No previous experience of who and what we are. She came to the movie as an open-minded, intelligent, successful business-woman, and enjoyed it completely. Wow.
At the Friday screening, Penny came, and also three members of her team, seeing it for the first time. Elisabeth Rohm, the actress who plays Juliet in the film, was scheduled to come, but at the last minute had to cancel. Too bad, it would have been delightful to see her and to share with her the fruit of our labors.
This time, the film as even better. After that screening, more good suggestions were made, which Ted is working on now.
The production schedule is very tight. Ted and his colleagues are working out of a rented editing room, one room out of a whole building of editing studios rented out to various movie-makers in town. It is a whole karmic universe that we have stepped into.
Just as a by-the-way, when I flew to Los Angeles I ended up having to take a taxi to the ashram from the airport. I chatted for a moment with the driver as we set off and heard myself say, “I’m in town to work on a movie.” I was tremendously impressed (and amused) but I don’t think the driver even noticed.
We only have that editing studio till the end of the month. A good thing, really, not only for the budget, but also to prevent us from tinkering forever. One can see how that could easily happen.
Every frame of a movie counts. Just like every note matters in a piece of music. You at least try to make each image, even if it is only on the screen for a few seconds, the best it can possibly be. The audience may not consciously notice each frame, but the cumulative effect is what makes a move effective.
After the Monday screening, conversation quickly went to showing the movie to Swamiji. Obviously we could not finalize it without his approval. It is important now to “lock” the movie because the soundtrack still has to be created. The music is done frame by frame, so you can’t make any changes once the music is added.
About the soundtrack, the idea is obviously to use Swamiji’s melodies but they will have to be orchestrated and arranged in such a way as to match the movie frame by frame. No small task. That project is just getting underway. David Eby will be “musical director,” working with a professional composer/arranger who knows the specific art of making a soundtrack. Keep that effort in your prayers. The music is a vitally important part of the success of the movie.
It had long been planned that I would take a copy of the movie in whatever stage it was to Swamiji and share it with him in India. Everyone felt it was important that I be present when he viewed it. There are so many details. I needed to be there to explain and answer questions.
I planned to see Swamiji soon after I arrived in India so that would be no problem. But when we put our minds to it, and communicated a bit with Narayani, it was obvious that my scheduled meeting times with him, first in Chennai, later in Pune, were unsuitable.
He is only in Chennai for two days and has a major program each day. No time there or bandwidth to give the movie the attention it needed. After that, I would not see Swamiji till the end of the month in the Pune community, much too late for the production schedule.
During our week in Los Angeles, Swamiji was vacationing and resting in Goa, at the beach resort where we have sometimes spent time with him. This trip has been very secluded for Swamiji, only Narayani and Shurjo are with him. But it became obvious it was the place to show him the movie, and he agreed.
My plan had been to spend this week in Bangalore, but a little tinkering with the reservations soon set up a flight to Goa the morning after I arrived in India.
I got to Goa on Wednesday afternoon and the plan was we would see the movie as soon as possible that day. Anand and Kirtani are also here, staying in another hotel, occasionally intersecting with Swamiji, and I am in their hotel. So on Wednesday at 4:30 in the afternoon the three of us walked the five minutes to where Swamiji is staying, movie in hand.
I had two versions. One a DVD and the other on a small hard drive. It took some tinkering to get it all set up so that we could all watch it on the big TV screen in his room, and Swamiji could listen through headphones and we could hear it through the TV speakers.
I was ready with a notebook. Swamiji had his phone set on record so we could capture all his suggestions. He said, as if it was obvious, that he would comment as we went along. I hadn’t even considered that, and told him we’d have to stop the movie each time because otherwise we would miss the next scene.
I had a little trepidation about viewing it that way, that we would lose the flow, but whatever he wanted was fine. I shouldn’t have worried.
We never had to pause even once for him to comment. During the showing, his words were few, and all of them superlatives. Swamiji is not given to hyperbole. He uses words carefully and always speaks the truth. So when he said as we progressed through it, “Fabulous.” “Fantastic.” “Perfect.” I knew he meant exactly what he said.
There had been some concern in Los Angeles before I left. “Will Swamiji like the movie?” Even then I felt, “How could he not?” This is a movie of who we are and who we are is Master’s grace and there it is on the screen.
Still, Swamiji has surprised me more than once in my life! I didn’t want to be presumptuous. But I felt such good energy had gone into this movie, and it was so sincerely an expression of Ananda’s true reality, that I expected him to be positive about it. His response, however, overwhelmed even my most positive expectation.
I was sitting next to him on the couch, and in the last half hour of the 90 minutes of the movie, I glanced over at him a few times. He was looking at the screen with that expression of pure bliss that we see on his face so often now.
When the movie ended, he was weeping, I was weeping, and perhaps everyone else was weeping, too. I was too overcome too look around. I weep now even thinking about that moment. It was several minutes before we could speak.
After offering superlatives again, Swamiji commented about the many Ananda people who speak in the movie, “Everyone is so eloquent. They don’t seem like they are acting at all. You can’t find anywhere a community full of people so intelligent, so sincere.”
That deep sincerity, he said, you could feel in everyone’s voice and how moving that was in itself.
He also commented on his own voice. Because he is so hard of hearing, he no longer hears either his speaking or his singing voice accurately. So it was interesting for him to hear himself in the movie. He thought his voice sounded very nice. And we all agreed.
Again he said, “Fabulous.”
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Shivani was almost literally holding her breath waiting to hear. Fortunately, Narayani got right onto her phone and texted the essence of Swamiji’s response. You could feel Shivani’s delight (and relief!) all these miles away!
Swamiji said, “Everyone played his part perfectly.” He was speaking not only of those on-screen but everyone who helped make it happen. “Please thank them for me.”
He particularly said, several times, “Please tell Ted how deeply grateful I am to him.”
“It is very, very, very good. It is more than good. It is great. Fantastic job.”
About David Eby he said, “He did splendidly.” About Elisabeth Rohm, he said, “She did beautifully.” Again he asked me to be sure and tell them.
Then he began to talk about the impact the movie will have.
“Master said this ideal [of spiritual communities] would spread like wildfire. This movie will do that. It will change the world.”
It was scheduled for the six of us -- Swamiji, Kirtani, Anand, Narayani, Shujo, and me -- to go out for a celebratory dinner after seeing the movie, to a hotel a few miles away that has perhaps the best Indian food in India. It is the Leela Hotel, for those of you who may want to know.
Naturally, all through dinner, we kept talking about the movie, mostly about the effect it will have.
Swamiji said, “This movie will put Master’s ideal on the map.” He left the table for a few minutes and when he returned he said, “Master is very pleased. It is his dream fulfilled. Millions will see this. I feel that Master is absolutely thrilled.”
Recently Swamiji had a Brighu reading. (Brighu is a sage from a higher age who wrote about many people who are living now -- thousands of years after his incarnation. “Brighu pundits” in various places in India have copies of these writings and you can go and see if there is an entry for you.) Apparently in that reading, Brighu said that Ananda would cease to be a place and would become a movement. When he was reminded of this at the dinner table, Swamiji said, “This movie will create that movement.”
Several times in the course of the evening, Swamiji said, “This was Master’s dream.”
One specific comment about the movie itself had to do with the singing of “Go With Love.” Toward the end of the movie the community sings that song to Juliet just before she leaves Ananda.
At the filming of that scene, David Eby spent time making sure that everyone in the room knew about a certain note that is often sung incorrectly. The song was prerecorded but our live singing would also be part of the film. David made it clear to us that Swamiji would not be pleased if we messed up that note.
At the dinner table, Swamiji specifically commented how, when the song started in the movie, he anticipated that note with some trepidation, and how relieved he was that it was done correctly.
I told Swamiji that David warned us that the “consequences of singing it wrong would be dire indeed.” Swamiji agreed that they would have been dire, but we were spared!
Swamiji said, “I feel that my life’s work is fulfilled. Everything I’ve tried to do for Master was right there in the movie.” This was particularly touching, because I know for Shivani, this was her goal in helping to make this movie. To provide for Swamiji the satisfaction of seeing that he has done for Master what Master asked him to do.
Swamiji said, “I can’t praise the movie highly enough. I think even the most materialistic person will like this.”
Again he said, “I was moved to tears. Please tell everyone who worked on it how much I appreciate what they have done.”
One of the interesting features of the movie is that, even though Swamiji plays a prominent role, the focus is dispersed among all the Ananda people. Clearly, everyone has embraced as his own the vision of Ananda.
Swamiji commented that he appreciated that we did not continually bring the focus back to him, that we didn’t just give him the credit. “It was all of you,” he said, speaking of the Ananda people, which is both true, and also more magnetic in terms of the film. Clearly we have lived everything we say.
He said, “I can’t think of any way to improve it. It is just perfect.”
The question of dubbing it into a foreign language came up. “The sincerity you feel in everyone’s voice,” Swamiji said, “would be lost. I can’t imagine it.” He spoke strongly in favor of subtitles, a question that will have to be sorted out later, since dubbing is a common practice.
He said, “I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than this movie. It can change the planet. When people in the movie say that helping others makes you happy, you can see that it is true. People will see that this way of life works. It is the very opposite of competition. Completely genuine and absolutely convincing.”
Although that evening he was not certain about the proposed title, Finding Happiness, the next morning he wrote, “I wasn’t sure of the name last night, but I woke up this morning with the thought that Finding Happiness is exactly right.”
Great to have that important issue settled. Then he added, “I am still on ‘cloud nine.’”
As you can well imagine, I was pretty elated. After dinner I had a long Skype call with Shivani. And it was many hours before I fell asleep! Long into the night, and much of the next day, there was a flurry of e-mails back and forth among the production team. Finally, though, it seemed as if the energy, at least for me, crested and for the first time since going to Los Angeles, the responsibility lifted I was able to look around and say, “Oh, here I am in India. And I have something completely other to do here!” I haven’t yet begun my part of it -- sharing the teachings -- I know when that moment comes, the grace to do it will also descend.
Blessings and joy to everyone.
P.S. Here is the letter Swamiji wrote later that night:
Please tell everyone -- I have just returned from a celebratory dinner after watching Finding Happiness. I am still teary eyed from the experience. This movie is the culmination of so many years of ardent efforts to serve Master. I can’t begin to tell everyone how proud and happy I am for you all. You were so natural, so eloquent, so intelligent! In fact, the most beautiful thing about the movie is that all of you were so YOU!!! It was completely genuine: not a false note throughout.
Ted did a magnificent job. Shivani and Asha did magnificent jobs. The whole crew did a magnificent job. Roberto did magnificently. And even I -- you know, I can’t hear myself clearly when I speak or sing. I was quite surprised! Truthfully, not only my voice, but no one’s voice could be satisfactorily dubbed into another language. The depth of sincerity would be lost. Subtitles are the only answer.
Really, I am not only proud of all of you for helping so outstandingly to bring Master’s vision to the world, with this movie I see the realization of Master’s prophecy that this ideal would “spread like wildfire” throughout the world. The movie’s impact will be global. As an ancient prophecy foretold for me recently, “Ananda will become no longer a place: It will become an ideal.”
May God bless everyone who had anything to do with this project. Its impact will be far reaching and profound.
with deep love,