What is the Ananda community, and why did Elisabeth Rohm choose to play the lead in a docudrama about it?

You may have noticed her in the TV series, Law and Order, which was on Indian screens not so long ago, as the idealist but go-getting Assistant District Attorney, Serena Southerlyn. Elisabeth Rohm has been acting for a while and her latest role was the hard-nosed brunette in the much-talked-about American Hustle, in which she shared screen space with the legendary Robert De Niro.

But, in between these made-in-the-U.S. productions, Rohm found herself playing the lead for the first time in Finding Happiness, a docudrama with a spiritual message. “When I was approached for the role, it came as an answer to a prayer,” she said. The more she heard about the film, the more it seemed that it was just what she needed at that moment.

Rohm grew up in California in a home that resounded with the sound of chanting and absorbed the silence of meditation. Her mother, a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, combined the tenets of Buddhism with daily living. When her mother died a year ago, Rohm, mother to a five-year-old daughter, found herself without an anchor. “She was always there at the end of an e-mail or phone to guide me. I felt adrift. I was seeking a spiritual anchor.”

Finding Happiness came almost as an answer to a prayer. “The community at Ananda was making a film that would showcase life in the community and take forward the teachings of Swami Yogananda. I was offered the role of Juliet, a doubting journalist who visits the community and realises that she is indeed touched by it. I realised this was my prayer being answered and agreed.” But Swami Kriyananda, founder of the Ananda community and spiritual inheritor of Swami Yogananda’s mantle, had to approve of her. She had no cause for the nervousness she felt. “He looked at me and said, ‘I like your eyes, let’s do it’, and that was it.”

For an actor who likes to “study her scripts carefully”, there were many surprises once the filming started. Realising that the non-actors of Ananda became mechanical and wooden just mouthing lines according to his script, director Ted Nicholaou decided to allow them be themselves and let Rohm draw them out, which the semi-documentary style allowed.

In the community, Rohm (as Juliet) met and interacted with a variety of inhabitants including IT professionals, an ex-deputy sherrif who now tends goats, medical practitioners, teachers and young people. “It was a privilege to work with them and watch them give their best so naturally. When you are working with seasoned professionals like Jennifer Lawrence, magic happens automatically. But this was as beautiful an experience,” said Rohm.

By the end, the sceptical Juliet is convinced that there is something unique about a community like Ananda: living by the tenets of Vedic life, caring for and nurturing one another, giving up material needs in exchange for a spiritual growth are concepts Juliet begins to understand and value.

Though she got into the character, there was a moment when her real self and the character merged. “I took the leap at the end of the film when I asked Swami Kriyananda for a blessing. I was asking that as much for myself because that was what I had been searching for. I was humbled in his presence, yet he felt like a friend. I am changed completely. I am sure that moment is transmitted on screen to anyone who watches the film.”

When she is not shooting, Rohm lives in Venice, California. “My daughter is still very young, but I see in her the possibility of being a true world citizen, and am helping to make that happen.” One of the moves in that direction is to visit India soon and discover more of what Finding Happiness gave her a glimpse of.

Finding Happiness will show in theatres in 12 Indian cities from April 25-28, 2014.