Vikram Gandhi was a disillusioned religion student who went seeking spiritual leaders and discovered that most of them are unnecessary con men bilking needy people out of a need to assuage their own egos or to score desperate tail. He wanted to prove to people that they did not need some guru to open up their better selves — that religion and sensibility are within everyone. So he got together a yoga instructor and a publicist and transformed himself into the spiritual guru Kumare, a faux yogi who was there to take in people easily lured by the billion dollar spiritual guidance industry and show them that they didn’t need anyone else to be amazing. The social experiment seems cruel, and as he lures in followers and finds people with genuine problems opening up to him in the process, Gandhi himself changes as a person. What starts as a Borat-style parody that demonstrates the foolishness and gullibility of the devotees of various self-help and spiritualist movements, like Law of Attraction and yoga enthusiasts, quickly develops into a fascinating study on what it means to have faith. Belief is an incredibly strong emotion, something that will drive people to lengths and breadths that they never thought themselves capable. Kumare could easily have been a cruel movie, making fun of these clingy suckers who’ll absorb any sap you splash on them, but instead takes the difficult high road and becomes incredibly poignant. Even as you wince and chuckle at the characters, you find yourself caring about them as much as Gandhi eventually does. And that’s what elevates the documentary beyond mere mockery.
Vikram Gandhi, a native of New Jersey who narrates the documentary in a clear as a bell voiceover, grows out his hair and beard and adopts the more traditional mutter of his grandmother to become Kumare. Kumare is a likable fellow, a continuously happy guru, clutching what’s essentially a trident with a testicle shaped character at the top, and with a silent open-mouthed laugh. Gandhi dons the orange robes and loincloths that we expect from a Central Casting swami. He learns yoga, and then develops a routine of various yoga-like moves that are meant to be ridiculous to see what he could get people to fall for. Because he looks and sounds the part, he’s able to convince a yoga class to do a motion that resembles people doing power strums on air guitar or to grunt and strain like panting dogs. He gets them to chant nonsensical sounds or to say “Be All That You Can Be” in Hindi. With the help of two willing assistants, a publicist and a yoga instructor, he’s able to quickly permeate the yoga community of Arizona.
While hilariously exposing how people will pretty much buy anything if they think it comes from an authentic source, the film begins to take a turn as we dip into the lives of the core group of Kumare devotees. These are people with genuine problems and concerns who are clinging to Kumare to save them. It would have been a very different and less effective film if Gandhi were playing everything for laughs. It would be Borat, which was just as instrumental at exposing the hypocrisy of the average citizen. Gandhi’s thesis from the very start was to start a religious movement that helped people to learn that they didn’t need religious movements. He’s constantly telling people that he’s fake, that he’s not what they think he is, and they so want to believe him that it becomes painful. You can see throughout the film how uncomfortable and pained Gandhi is beneath his playful Kumare exterior. He realizes that he might completely destroy these people who only wanted help and that he is genuinely trying to help. The film actually opens with scenes just before he’s about to initiate the “Great Unveiling.” Gandhi stares at himself in a mirror, with a mortified look on his face, shaking and about to dry heave. He never intends to hurt anyone, and that’s kind of what permits us to laugh along and prevents the film from dipping into cruelty and callousness, which elevates it to such a moving experience.
Of course, this all might be bullshit. The very film Kumare is about a con man, and Gandhi might just be manufacturing his own sentimentality. POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: When he does reveal himself to be a regular person, there are plenty of folks who simply walk away or are grievously pained by his deception. Those that forgive him end up bettering themselves. We don’t hear from those who were disillusioned. So by nature of the documentarian, he’s probably spinning everything to look less the dickhole. But I’m fine with that. ENDETH SPOILERS.
Kumare is a daring social experiment in what it means to have faith. Gandhi’s not preaching the gospel of the fallacy of organized religion. He’s merely stating that most people are capable of achieving that without paying money to some evangelist, whether he sports a fake tan and a shiny diamond crucifix tie tack or a scraggly beard and bare feet. I found the film to be incredibly moving — I got a little teary-eyed towards the end — because I wanted these people to find what they were looking for. And that’s the heart of Kumare, there seems to be a genuine and heartwarming effort to help people find the help they need and to turn their faith in on themselves.
Kumare is screening in the documentary competition at the SXSW 2011 Film Festival.