He wanted to expose the folly of faith by becoming a fake guru. Instead he learned a few things about spirituality.
Dir. Vikram Gandhi, 2012, 84 min, Viewed in the Theater
On paper, Kumaré seems like an excruciatingly mean-spirited exercise. Vikram Gandhi was seeking to pick apart why people are so susceptible to gurus and other faux-spiritual leaders. He grew out a beard, dressed in yogi clothes, affected a stereotypical Indian accent, and set himself up as “Sri Kumaré,” an Eastern philosopher in search of a flock. And despite preaching simple ideas that were not only obvious but hinted at his false nature, he was able to accumulate a small following. Truly, anyone can start a religion.
Obviously, there’s a hazardous ethical pommel horse to dance on here (I would have made that analogy even if the Olympics weren’t running, by the way). As a spiritual leader, Vikram is privy to some deeply private thoughts and histories, and there are people who will change their whole lives on his word. If he merely used this experiment as an excuse to mock these people, who are guilty of nothing more than seeking answers during tumultuous times in their lives, this would possibly be the nastiest documentary yet made.
But it isn’t. And here’s why: Vikram might not have realized this (nothing in the film says so), but he wasn’t a fake guru. As soon as he got his first devotee, he was a real leader. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t really an ascetic from India; put into this position of power, he used it in an honest way, and actually tried to help these people. He preached to them that they didn’t need a guru, that all they needed to improve their lives came from within themselves.
The reason for this is that Vikram grew attached to his followers, felt guilty about deceiving them, and wanted the experiment to have the best outcome possible. We come to love them, too, as we get tours of their home lives. One man is a recovering crack addict. One woman is a single mother struggling with an empty nest, as well as her weight problems. Another woman is a death row lawyer who just needs a break from it all. None of these people are stupid or, it seems, even especially gullible. They’re just desperate for answers.
The movie occasionally dips into Borat-esque shenanigans, such as when “Kumaré” teaches his students ridiculous-looking made up yoga poses, or when he paints a penis on the forehead of another guru. That stuff thankfully fades out as Vikram is drawn deeper into his lie, and decides to spin it for the best. I know this probably won’t be enough for some viewers. You might simply want to condemn Vikram outright for ever engaging in this lie. And I honestly can’t say I’d blame you for that. But what won me over was that Vikram realizes this as well. Watching him struggle with his newfound sense of spirituality and responsibility, as well as his gnawing guilt, is truly involving.
I wish Vikram had done more to explore the consequences of his venture. The movie is short, but feels padded, with excursions to cults and other New Age centers that feel useless. It would have been interesting to learn more about how the devotees of Kumaré reacted when they learned that Kumaré was a put-on. There was room for it, but all we get in its stead are some title cards.
I’m not really sure how legitimate the events seen in Kumaré are. I honestly would not be surprised if it turned out to be partly or wholly orchestrated, that the doc deceives on the timeline or circumstances in some way. You know what? It doesn’t matter. Seriously, it doesn’t. You know another doc that’s mostly a put-on to the audience, but which is great nonetheless? Catfish. The veracity, or lack thereof, is subordinate to the underlying truth of the message, and Kumaré makes its point well.
“But Dan!” you say, “We’re talking about documentaries!” In response, here’s my personal definition of the documentary, stolen from John Grierson. He’s one of the early pioneers of the form, and urban legend holds that he’s the one who invented the term itself. A documentary is creative treatment of actuality. You might notice that that’s a very broad definition. Well, it’s the only definition broad enough to encompass the vast number of different docs out there. If you think Kumaré doesn’t fit just because it’s (possibly) playing with the audience, then it’s your parameters of what “counts” as a doc that have to change. At any rate, discounting the movie’s worth simply because it doesn’t fit a definition is weird.