Director R.S. Prasanna on the making of The Quest, a biopic on Swami Chinmayananda

R.S. Prasanna passed out of Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Harrington Road in 2000. And never went back for 14 long years. His alma mater caught up with him in the most unlikely of places — Hong Kong. Returning from the post production of Kalyana Samayal Saadham, he stayed there for a day. The Chinmaya Mission was right next door. He went in. What followed feels like a dream, confesses Prasanna. He was roped in to direct a bio-pic on Swami Chinmayananda, known for his clear, contemporary and humour-laced interpretations of ancient texts and philosophy. The film is to be released for his 100th birth anniversary.

“In a way, my family jokes that with this film, I’ve made up for questioning traditions in KSS, almost like taking a dip in the Ganges,” laughs Prasanna. They say so with reason. KSS nearly trashed tradition and narrated a love story that redefined gender perceptions. However, for The Quest, Prasanna dwelled deep into the wisdom of the past.

The film has a lot of buzz around it. There are great technicians (many repeated from KSS) and, most of all, art director Thota Tharrani plays the older Chinmayananda. It is his first attempt at acting. Says Prasanna: “It’s like I was destined to do this movie. Imagine not going to Harrington Road, 30 minutes away from home, but visiting the Mission in Hong Kong!”

In a way, the film will see Prasanna do what he’s always admired about Martin Scorsese — the ace director makes adrenalin-thumping films and also those that appeal to one’s soul — like The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. “This is an opportunity for me to do something on that fabric. It was a chance to do a period film of international quality.”

Working with the monks from the Mission and Thota Tharrani was an experience to cherish, says Prasanna. “Once he donned the robes, so many fell at his feet. He became the Swami. It was also a learning experience; he taught me so much about art direction.” The film was shot across the country, including the Himalayas. “Swami Mitrananda from the Mission was with us, to guide and help,” says Prasanna. Initially, working with people who have embraced the spiritual path was like treading on thin ice, he says. “Imagine talking production cost and making them part of the chaos of filmmaking! I wanted to keep the sanctity of their life intact.”

In the end, says the director, “a bit of us rubbed off on them and their calmness seeped into our hearts. It was a win-win situation.” The team took back two things from the film. They swore less even during trying times (“you can’t possibly swear in front of monks!”) and they turned vegetarian.

As for Prasanna, he has another gift he’s super thrilled about — a signed copy of Thota’s original art work for Nayagan.

The cool sanyasis

The film traces Swami Chinmayananda’s life from when he was a child to when he attained Samadhi. Sandeep, a monk himself, essays the younger Swami, in his transformational phase from age 25 to 40.

The director says that 99 per cent of those on screen are amateurs. They went through a week-long workshop. “But, nothing seems preachy or fake because these people have internalised the philosophy. It comes from the heart.”

The film was shot over 27 days and it was a hi-tech production headed by executive producer Jithin, says Prasanna. “The monks were carrying laptops, tabs, iPhones… I worked with the coolest set of sanyasis.”

The film is slated for an August release, primarily on the festival circuit. A national theatre chain has also come forward to release it in theatres.

After this spiritual break, Prasanna will move on to another romcom, a big commercial movie. “The Quest was an interlude. Every filmmaker wants to do commercial as well as pure cinema. The first nourishes you, the latter enriches you.”