The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Healing the spirit through film: DePaul grad student celebrates distribution of documentary feature

Gia Clarke
Vishaal Desai, right, speaks to his students about their positions during their weekly film lab in Cinespace on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Desai is a Teacher’s Assistant for a film production class.

Vishaal Desai adores cinema. In 2009, he graduated from the prestigious London Film School. He worked for years in the film industry in India before coming to DePaul for his graduate degree. His affinity for film is only matched by his love of yoga. 

“Yoga is not just about the physical benefits, it’s about the mental benefits,” Desai said. “It gives you a sense of calmness and puts you in a place where you’re helping your spirit.” 

Despite potential ridicule, Desai still holds true to his connection to the exercise through his love of film in his documentary “B.K.S. Iyengar: Uniting Through Yoga”.

“To some people, (yoga) might sound a bit corny, but it’s your soul, for lack of a better word, that needs healing as much as your body does,” Desai said. 

Vishaal Desai edits a music video in the Cinespace editing booths on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. The music video was directed by Desai. (Gia Clarke)

In 2018, Desai was living in Mumbai when he was approached by his friend and producer, Mrinal Kapadia. Kapadia had pitched a documentary covering the life of B.K.S. Iyengar to Gaia, an Indian-American streaming service focused on spiritual media. Iyengar, the author who popularized the use of yoga as an exercise in the West in the 1950s, had died four years prior and was prime for a cinematic telling of his life. Kapadia quickly received the greenlight for the project — he just needed a director. Desai was the pick.

Kapadia was one of Iyengar’s students and he referred to Iyengar as “Guruji,” a term for a type of spiritual teacher. 

“I remember having met Guruji only on a handful of occasions in his advanced age, and having remembered what it felt like to be in his presence,” Kapadia said. “It struck me that future generations would never know about him and his impact except through audiovisual teachings or writings.” 

Desai was happy to take on the project as he had prior experience in the field. His aunt was a yoga teacher, and he had been taking her classes for years. 

Desai wasn’t interested in making a straight portrayal of Iyengar’s life; there were already documentaries about Iyengar’s personal history

“The thought process was to look into his legacy and his impact on the world instead,” Desai said. “We approached this focusing on how the world saw him, rather than looking at it from his perspective.” 

Janit Mahadevia, the assistant director of the film, was approached by Desai soon after the documentary process began. Mahadevia, who was in between jobs then, was excited to come on the project.

“I took the opportunity because I’d never done it before,” Mahadevia said. 

The filming process mostly consisted of collecting footage from Iyengar’s pupils within India. From there, the scope widened to conduct interviews with his students from around the world: from Germany to Italy to the United States, it was a project that required an international scope. 

Vishaal Desai, right, grades his students on how well they set up the light fixtures in the sets at Cinespace on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Desai and his students had a test during their weekly film lab. (Gia Clarke)

Of course, that level of filmmaking introduces a lot of challenges. 

“We had footage from all over the world,” Desai said. “I don’t speak all those languages, so watching the footage was not of any help unless I understood it right. I had to send it to different people to get it translated.”

Production spanned 14 months, four of which were dedicated to the actual interview process. The rest were spent in the editing room, crafting a story from the gathered footage. 

“We ended up with a good two or three hundred hours of footage of interviews, stuff that I shot, and then archival stuff,” Desai said. “Once I got all of that, it was a couple of months of just watching footage to build a narrative. In essence, I wrote the film while watching it.”

Phillip Palmer, screenwriter and former professor of Desai’s at the London Film Academy, said he is proud of his pupil’s work. 

“I’ve been teaching screenwriting for nearly thirty years and I’m privileged to have had Desai as one of my students,” Palmer said. “He is imaginative, bold, entrepreneurial and a wonderful collaborator.” 

“B.K.S. Iyengar: Uniting Through Yoga” is now available via Amazon Prime through a Gaia subscription. Desai hopes the film will inspire other filmmakers to create despite the obstacles of time. 

“You can make a documentary where you have no plan,” Desai said. “You have to stitch stuff together, but you can do it.” 

Featuring exclusive interviews from Iyengar’s close collaborators and family, “Uniting Through Yoga” captures the uniqueness of his teachings and how the mastering of the physical can lead to a breakthrough of the spiritual.

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