By Christopher Bell | The Playlist June 20, 2012 at 4:58PM
Sick of spiritualists charging an arm and a leg just to spout incredibly vague musings designed to help you? Think they're all a bunch of scammers taking advantage of those who actually need real assistance? If so, you're in luck, because Vikram Gandhi is on your wavelength. This filmmaker has made a documentary, not unlike "Borat," in which he pretends to be a native Indian guru (code name: Kumaré), creating his own philosophy and gathering very dedicated followers. Unlike the faux Kazakh, the director will reveal himself to his peons at the end, in an effort to prove that whatever change occurred was because of them and not him. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival, "Kumaré" is a tricky flick that makes a scary case for how easy it is to begin a cult, but it also (unsurprisingly) is a morally questionable film endeavor.
Growing out his hair and adopting a very faux accent (think Apu from "The Simpsons"), Gandhi starts small by leading a very tiny yoga session consisting of two people. All it takes is one, though, and he manages to swoon an attendee, who ends up spreading the word. Before he knows it, Kumaré has a dozen believers, and the more he sees them, the more personal things they confide. He has them do "vision boards" (cut outs pasted to paper, like elementary school projects), drops hints in his discussions that he is not who they think he is (he slides "I am the biggest faker I know," thoughtfully into a speech), and even sets two of his followers up romantically. Soon he will have to come clean, as his ultimate lesson is that people can help themselves without a guru -- they simply need to confront themselves within. But eventually he starts to appreciate being this character, citing the newfound attention and respect. Ultimately he decides to prolong the ruse. But for how long will he do this?
Although his goofy teachings are amusing, it does seem a bit mean-spirited to be laughing at these people who are only seeking guidance. Whereas Borat is in character for 100% of his film, here the director fully explains his plans to the audience, and frequently comments throughout the movie as himself rather than as Kumaré. With this kind of personal perspective, it's a bit strange how little Gandhi verbally laments taking advantage of his followers for the experiment. Even when he hesitates in showing them his true identity, it almost feels like he's doing it moreso because he enjoys being the character rather than stopping the charade.
Though sometimes the humor is a bit rude, there are some instances which prove downright frightening. In one sequence, he gets a devoted follower (someone not part of the regular group) to pray in front of three pictures: himself, Barack Obama, and Osama bin Laden. To us this is clearly outrageous, but the man doesn't bat an eye. Gandhi explores the levels of trust that everyone puts into a man they really know nothing about, displaying how people in need of spiritual help will latch on to anything that promises them peace of mind.
We're not sure if his lesson comes through in the end, which was that everything that people needed to help themselves was actually within them the entire time. It’s an understandable point, but by being Kumaré, he's pulling it out of them -- something they either didn't know they had or were afraid to confront, but either way, he had to guide them towards it. So maybe it can be argued that the lesson is in the form of the film, telling audience members not to seek out expensive and dubious gurus because they can work on their own problems solo. But here’s the logic: instead of seeking a mentor and being guided by him, be guided by a film about a fake sage who tricks people into following him. Well, at least a film ticket is cheaper than a philosophizing yoga instructor.
Gandhi makes strong points within his film, but some of them are too flimsy to really stand. It’s definitely a warmer movie than something like “Borat,” as even though he’s tricking people to participate in his experiment, you can feel that he actually wants them to better themselves; he actually cares for them. That said, it’s not as funny or insightful as Sacha Baron Cohen’s ruse, and while “Kumaré” definitely isn’t boring, it may leave you with a bitter aftertaste. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from DOC NYC.