Must Watch: ‘Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet’
KUMARÉ: THE TIME I BECAME A GURU
Must Watch: ‘Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet’Apr 06
Kumare is a wise guru from the East who indoctrinated a group of followers in the West. Kumare, however, is not real — he is the alter ego of American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi, who impersonated a spiritual leader for the sake of a social experiment designed to challenge one of the most widely accepted taboos: that only a tiny “1%” can connect the rest of the world to a higher power. Concealing his true identity from everyone he meets, Kumare forges profound and spiritual connections with people from all walks of life. At the same time, in the absurdity of living as an entirely different person, Vikram, the filmmaker, is forced to confront difficult questions about his own identity. At the height of his popularity, Kumare unveils his true identity to a core group of disciples who are knee-deep in personal transformation. Will they accept his final teaching? Can this illusion reveal a greater spiritual truth? KUMARE, at once playful and profound, is an insightful look at faith and belief.
By Roger Ebert
August 8, 2012
Growing up in New Jersey, Vikram Gandhi was a typical American kid who resented the way his family tried to enforce Hindu beliefs and practices. He found it ironic that Americans began to popularize gurus and yoga just at the time he was growing away from such things. On a trip to India, he says, he found that “real” gurus were no more real than the American frauds who copied them.
That led him into the deliberate deception that he filmed in “Kumare.” He grew a long beard and a pony-tail, exchanged his shoes for sandals, switched his slacks and suits to flowing orange robes, and started carrying an ornate walking stick. Then he moved to Arizona, hired an expert to teach him yoga and a PR woman to promote him as a guru, and began to attract followers in meetings at shopping malls, community centers and around the swimming pools of his affluent clients. His accent was modeled on the way his grandmother spoke English. His teachings were deliberate gibberish: talk of inner blue lights, “finding the guru within,” and chants of fabricated mantras.
At this point in the film, it takes an odd turn. Kumare’s followers believe him without question. They share their deepest secrets with him and visibly appear to benefit from him. These people are not dummies. Mostly middle-aged, they take their health seriously, are somewhat skilled at yoga and follow schedules of meditation. “Kumare” seems to establish that a guru can be a complete fraud and nevertheless do a certain amount of good, because what matters is not the sincerity of the guru but that of his followers.
Gandhi seems typecast for the role of Kumare. Tall, thin, bending forward to listen better, he speaks warmly and encouragingly, and makes deep eye contact. He smiles easily. He never pushes too far. He seems as real as any guru and more real than some. His teaching of yoga seems within the ability of his followers to accomplish. He narrates the documentary (in an ordinary American voice), introduces us to followers he’s grown close to, and begins to believe he may have started something that was out of his control.
He tells his followers the time has come for him to leave them. Now they are on their own. He returns to New Jersey, cuts his hair, shaves his beard, and begins to practice a speech in the mirror: “I am not who you think I am.” Whether he ever says this, and how the movie ends, I will leave for you to discover.
It seems to me that “Kumare” reflects a truth that is often expressed in three words: “Act as if.” If you can act as if something is true, in a sense that makes it true. It doesn’t matter if a teacher’s spiritual teachings have any basis. It doesn’t matter if the supernatural even exists (Gandhi believes it does not). His followers benefit by acting “as if.”
When I first heard this film described, I assumed it would be a satirical, snarky comedy like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Borat.” Not so. Gandhi seems to be essentially a good man, and he learns things of value to himself in his experiment. In a sense, the deception he practices on his followers is contemptible, but in another sense, they’re all in it together. The film’s implication seems to be: It doesn’t matter if a religion’s teachings are true. What matters is if you think they are.
KUMARÉ: THE TIME I BECAME A GURU
By Vikram Gandhi
July 6, 2012
Six years ago, I filmed a gang of sadhus (spiritual ascetics) smoking weed on the banks of the Holy Ganga in Northern India. Their guru stepped away from a young European woman meditating under a banyan tree, and approached me, machete in hand. “You want to know about gurus?” He popped a squat, and lit up a bidi. “All those big gurus you see, they are not spiritual people. All they want is money. It’s not that easy man… Living a spiritual life is very difficult.” That night, they swapped the pot for heroin.
Back home in New York City, I filmed the world around me embracing the “spiritual life,” or at least one packaged into a healthful 90-minute alternative to aerobics class. The modern definition of yoga is convoluted as the postures yogis aspire to. Symbols, smells, words, icons, and religions of the East became an easy aesthetic for branding and marketing. Was the culture I grew up in becoming just a marketing scheme for a flourishing industry? In yoga class, was I the only one who wasn’t feeling the vibe of getting enlightened? And why were people all of a sudden bowing down to people in robes with expensive philosophies and the promises of happiness? I became skeptical of anyone who sold a spiritual product, anyone who claimed to be holier than anyone else, anyone who said they had the answer.
Since those days as one-man crew, my answers and strong opinions have turned more into questions. As a documentarian on the edge of a subculture for years, the lives of the characters I met have come full circle — almost repeating the same plot lines as the teachers that fell decades before them. I’ve tried Iyengar, Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Kundalini, Anusara, and met the founders, inventors, entrepreneurs, and gurus in many traditions. I’ve also chanted (reluctantly and enthusiastically), set intentions, retained breath, hugged a saint — or rather got hugged by one, received blessings, blessed, fasted, veg’d out, finished a first series, kriya-ed, flossed my nose, taken pilgrimages, avoided dysentery, bathed in the royal baths, found moments of deep tranquility, gave in to temptation, restrained it, fluctuated mentally, and even saw a most surreal event called an International Yoga Competition. I’ve said ‘No, it’s Vikram with a V’ more than any other phrase these past few years. I learned from this, that practice never makes anyone perfect. We are all the same — flawed, yet capable of greatness.
I’d always wanted to make a movie about ‘us’ — about our inner, “spiritual” lives. I’ve watched so many movies about ‘them’ — the backwards people of the others and even, the fundamentalist right-wingers. What about us? Why don’t we turn our gaze back on ourselves? I figured: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. So, I impersonated a wise guru from the East named Kumaré and started a following of real people in the West.
The character Kumaré was the center of a social experiment testing what we coined “The Spiritual Placebo Effect.” Can a fake religion and religious leader have the same effect as a real one? If the facts are not real, does it make the experience any less real? Some people were appalled, offended at the idea. It’s easy not to question what feels right — people think you’re being a downer, a bummer, or a cynic. But to me, asking questions, breaking down icons and idols, and destroying the illusions our society is built on are highly ‘spiritual’ acts. And aren’t the saviors of history the ones that decided to speak up and say something?
This film was my humble attempt to bring the spiritual heroes I learned about as a child to the real world. I studied Buddha, Shiva, Krishna, Jesus — all the big ones but it took the form a bearded barefoot man who carried a trident and spoke like my grandmother.
It was not a matter of fooling people — everyone from the footsteps of the Himalayas to the Mexican Border believed in Kumaré. I suspect this is not because I am a great actor, but because Kumaré is a dream worth believing in. Being a fictional spiritual leader has a lot more rules than being a real a guru. No money can be earned. No temptation can be acted upon. My character only saw the highest in people, his ‘motivation’ was to make them happy — to trick people to be happy.
At Q&A’s, people ask me if I’m still as critical of spiritual leaders as I was when I started. I can say now that I understand why we have spiritual leaders, and how slippery the slope is from hero to villain, when one takes on that role. I may be more sympathetic now, but I still always think back to something Kumaré once said: “It is you real gurus that make us fake gurus so necessary.”