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Documentarian studies faith, ‘truth’

Fri., Sept. 14, 2012

Vikram Gandhi, the director and star of “Kumare,” is a middle-class Indian-American filmmaker and documentarian from New Jersey. When we meet him, he’s in the midst of casting off the vestiges of his ancestral faith. He’s vaguely contemptuous of the Hindu beliefs that have sustained his family, especially his devout grandmother.

But a funny thing happens on his way to apostasy. Mr. Gandhi notices that just as he’s become disenchanted with his religion, its popularity has exploded in the West. Yoga studios proliferate along with yogis, spiritual masters and New Age adaptations of ancient Hindu rituals.

In the midst of the religious syncretism he sees all around him, Mr. Gandhi has an inspired idea. He decides to start his own variant on “truth.” He goes to India to study the so-called holy men to learn their ways. He immerses himself in their rituals while seeing through their fake piety to the money-grubbing reality beneath the surface.

Confirmed in his original notion that every guru is faking it for fun if not necessarily for profit, Mr. Gandhi returns to the U.S. to conduct an elaborate and potentially dangerous social experiment. He grows out his hair and beard, dons robes and a loin cloth, carries a scepter and adopts an accent. Accompanied by two female assistants who are privy to his deception, Mr. Gandhi sets out for the American Southwest, where he is unlikely to be recognized. He re-emerges in Phoenix as Kumare, an enlightened guru.

Because Kumare is initially booked into yoga studios to give talks, he quickly finds an audience predisposed to believe the ad hoc spirituality that he offers. Much of what Mr. Gandhi teaches is insipid and unoriginal, but he is a charismatic and believable example of the religion he makes up as he goes along.

Eventually, Kumare forms deep attachments to a hard-core group of 14 or so disciples. What started out as a cynical attempt to illustrate the emptiness of religious devotion becomes for him a moving exploration about the power of religion to shape one’s life in a positive way.

Still, Kumare struggles with the fundamental dishonesty of his pose when he realizes the weight of trust that has been thrust upon him by those who would be his disciples. It isn’t long before they are seeking one-on-one counseling about their jobs and lives.

A death penalty lawyer wants to find relief from her anxieties. A former addict wants a spirituality that can fill the hole once occupied by his need to inject himself with drugs. A woman in a bad marriage seeks permission to leave her emotionally abusive husband.

These are some of the damaged people who come to Kumare for answers and enlightenment about a healthier path.

In a subversive way, Kumare attempts to undermine his own spiritual authority by confessing to his adherents that he’s just as ordinary as they are and repeating that everyone must find “the guru within.” To his followers, it just sounds like another level of profound wisdom they must grasp. They don’t hear the confession, no matter how blatant it will sound to them in retrospect.

It is to Vikram Gandhi’s credit as a documentarian that “Kumare” feels as scripted as it does. The camera moves smoothly between the faces of the adoring disciples and the increasingly anguished filmmaker. His wide eyes and genuinely otherworldly looks gives him a credence he never anticipated. Disciples of both sexes tell the camera how much they “love” Kumare and how much he means to them.

Several Sacha Baron Cohen films have taught audiences to laugh at people caught in the net of a maverick filmmaker’s cinematic pranks.

Unlike the creator of “Borat,” Mr. Gandhi feels a profound sympathy for those who have no idea that they are pouring their hearts out to an impostor. With the possible exception of the cult leaders he meets along the way (like the leaders of Urantia), Mr. Gandhi never plays the spiritually hungry for fools. That doesn’t lessen the reality that they have put their trust in someone who is just as damaged as they are.

The tension builds over the course of the film as lives are changed and deeper spiritual attachments form between the increasingly reluctant guru and his disciples. We know this spiritual crush must come to an end, but how can it resolve itself without feelings of betrayal overwhelming everything?

The documentary’s ending will either move audiences or infuriate them. It is amazing how casually everyone treated the presence of a camera crew buzzing around them for so many months. The fact that no one ever suspected Vikram Gandhi’s motives is arguably the film’s greatest miracle.


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