by RJ Schaffer
When Yadubara Das became a member of the Hare Krishna movement in 1970, he was assigned to become a filmmaker.
That assignment has lasted 45 years, and his work has now brought him to a documentary that follows the life of the founder of the Hare Krishna, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who died in 1977.
“Acharya: The Life and Legacy of A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada” is now in the final stages of production. The slated premiere date is Sept. 17 in honor of the 50-year anniversary of Prabhupada’s arrival in the United States.
Das, the spiritual name John Griesser prefers, has been working on the film for two years. He and a staff of 40 producers, filmmakers and editors began production one year ago.
“I think coming up with a really good script (has been the biggest challenge),” Das said. “That’s the foundation of any film. It has to be something that is going to grab people’s attention and make them want to know more about Prabhupada.”
Das doesn’t have to travel far to consult with the author, who is also his wife, Visakha Dasi (Jean Griesser). She has produced more than 150 written and photo essays and written three books on the Hare Krishna.
She said she is excited about the documentary, which is expected to be about 90 minutes long, because they are using many of Prabhupada’s own words via his audio recordings and writings to explain his story.
Dasi said the story has never been explained fully in one place, so her job has been to search through all of the recorded audio that exists from his life in a process that she called extremely time consuming. Audio recordings of Prabhupada were collected over the years by people who recorded his speeches. Das and Dasi then incorporated some of the audio into the documentary.
Dasi’s goal throughout filming was to portray three different aspects of Prabhupada’s life: his childhood, his interactions with his “spiritual master” and the 40 years between when he realized his goal to spread Hare Krishna throughout the United States and then coming to the country to accomplish it.
Dasi said filming for the project required extensive research.
The crew split time between the U.S., mostly on the east coast, and India. They talked to everyone, including followers of the founder, former professors and friends, to learn more about him.
Hilary Zakheim and Kuvalesaya Zakheim were members of that crew. Hilary Zakheim has only been involved for two months but is one of two editors for the film, while Kuvalesaya Zakheim is the production designer.
“We have historical references to things that happened,” Kuvalesaya Zakheim said. “We know what was going on at the time. We know what he was doing… We now have to fill in some of the missing gaps by blending images.”
Hilary Zakheim acknowledged that, because Prabhupada’s life has been dissected in so many ways, it has been difficult to find new information. Her focus has been finding new angles on what’s already known about the founder.
The Zakheims were raised in Hare Krishna households and were interested in joining the project because of their background. Kuvalesaya Zakheim compared it to the “passing of the torch” by preserving the information on Prabhupada’s life for future generations.
The film will also feature Allen Ginsberg of the Beat Generation and George Harrison of the Beatles as two of the larger known figures who were influenced by Prabhupada. Philippe Auliac, a French filmmaker, interviewed Harrison, and Das interviewed Ginsberg.
Principal shooting for the documentary is complete, and now the editing phase has begun. This film, unlike others about the Hare Krishna movement, includes reenactments of his life with scenes from India to give viewers the opportunity to see the events of Prabhupada’s life not captured on film.
Since his career started in 1970 with still photography and filmmaking, Das said he has made eight films and 15 documentaries. Das previously produced a 31-hour video series on Prabhupada’s life, and he also created a cooking series called “Cooking With Kurma,” which was broadcast across the globe in 1996.
Despite all of what he has done and the work put into this latest project, he doesn’t view the documentary as the crowning achievement of his career.
“I’d like it to be another step,” Das said. “We’ll see.”