Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi grew up in New Jersey, where his upper middle class Indian-American family exposed him to traditional Hindu culture. As a boy he respectfully watched his grandmother perform her traditional prayers.
After studied religion in college he traveled to India, where disgusted by the guru poseurs and hustlers he ran into, began to question the very idea of a Guru. Footage of Kumbh Mela (the tri-annual mass gathering of sadhus from all parts of India) shows Vikram stripped down to his Dhoti, milling around with naked Naga babas (the “sky-clad” holy men) on pilgrimage.
The documentary is about “the biggest lie [I’ve] ever told and the greatest truth [I’ve] ever experienced.” says Vikram at the start of the film.
Vikram began with a satiric purpose, eager to mock the false Gurus, and the lonely, frightened people who ascribe wisdom to others in order to simplify and make sense of the chaos of life.
Like a self-help Borat, Vikram transforms himself into an ascetic wandering monk-lite; the bearded gentle laughing Kumaré, who with two hired female assistants (a yogi teacher and a PR girl) arrives in Phoenix hoping to develop a group of followers.
Carrying a staff, armed with a lifetime of asanas (he can easily lift his leg over his ear) and a voice modeled on his beloved grandmother, he makes a convincing holy man. New Agers flock to his yoga classes. His teachings include a very postmodern sense of self-mockery “I am the biggest fake of all,” he insists over and over with a gentle laugh and a pleasing self-deprecating manner.
Vikram leaves clues all over the place. He calls himself a mirror to reveal their inner guru so that, when he is gone, they won’t need a Kumaré. Staring at the camera, he even refers to himself as a ‘filmmaker” evoking both levels of his con.
Kumaré quickly acquires a group of followers including a sweet, stressed Death Row attorney, a lovelorn recovering addict, an aimless flirty young woman and a dangerously obese woman.
Kumaré invents postures (one looks like a Three Stooges hand gesture) and mantras (one translated into the Army jingle “Be All That You Can Be” and has his students offer up prayers to an altar sporting three pictures: President Obama, Kumaré, and Osama bin Laden.
Remnants of the early documentary he abandoned to create Kumaré, include some hilarious footage with a cynical American hippie Guru, who keeps salivating over young girls. “What could be better than sleeping with and enlightened being” he asks one before indulging in some locker room leers with Kumaré. Vikram also visits with 30-year veteran of the mystical scene, Gabriel of Urantia, who lives on a deep-dish hippie commune with his followers and styles himself a “spiritual activist”. Vikram acknowledges that Gabriel’s followers seem happy.
As his publicist books more classes, the devoted followers keep showing up. The students seem comfortable consulting Kumaré with the cameras running. Answering the cameraman’s direct questions, they are both adoring and protective of the gentle sometimes-childlike baba, who sleeps outside near the pool in his expensive rented house.
As the shoot goes on, and the followers begin to depend on him, Vikram expresses his own doubts and discomforts in a voice over to the audience. One devotee asks him whether or not to leave her husband. Watching Vikram squirm as he tries to stay true to hs performance while dispensing life changing advice, alters the film from the in your face satire Vikram perhaps meant to shoot into something more ambivalent and challenging.
Kumaré’s made up blue light ritual begins to work. (Perhaps Kumaré’s seemingly unconditional support of his devotees liberates them.) What separates Vikram from Sacha Baron Cohen is his essential niceness. He’s simply too nice to gull his equally nice followers for long. What’s more he honestly wants to help them, and, for most, his help is effective. One point for the power of suggestion.
Vikram undergoes his own transformation, coming to the realization that Kumaré’s connected more with people than Vikram ever has. He dreads the ritual “unveiling” which he planned to let his followers in on the secret before he leaves Phoenix. When he finally reveals himself, on a later long awaited visit, two shocked followers cut him out of their lives, but most appreciate the trick as Kumaré’s final teaching.
Kumaré’s has a positive effect. The lawyer begins to meditate daily. The addict, abandoned by his wife, cleans up. The overweight woman drops 70 pound and keeps it off. Two of his most devoted followers refuse to talk to him. The yoga teacher who integrated his teachings into her own felt the most betrayed.
Adam Barton and Nathan Russell’s brisk edit, Kahlil Hudson’s cinematography and Maytinee Redding’s costumes add to the mix.
“Kumaré” plays in Los Angeles at The Cinefamily on Friday, July 26th with an additional full week run August 3 – 9