[20 June 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“For some reason, I just know that I’m gonna have a little more time with this guy.” Molly appears convinced: Kumaré is going to change her life. Cut to Vikram Gandhi, journalist, filmmaker, and spiritual guru Kumaré. “Basically,” he says, “I was just telling everybody I was fake.” And still, according to one his disciples, “I actually felt better in his presence.” Indeed, asserts another, “It felt like experiencing bliss and light, I can feel the energy of him and I, connecting in a ritual.”
The effects of such ritual—faux and real and in-between—form the focus of Kumaré, Gandhi’s documentary of his experience posing as a guru. A young man who seems to be drifting nowhere from his birthplace in New Jersey, and feeling cynical about the popularity of yoga and the apparently insatiable American yearning for a sense of community in “otherness,” Gandhi devises a plan. He consults a yoga instructor and a publicist, grows a beard and long hair, and creates Kumaré, drawn from images he’s absorbed as a child whose Indian-born parents made sure he attended traditional ceremonies.
Opening at the IFC Center in New York on 20 June, the film tracks Gandhi’s efforts to gather together a set of acolytes, with the help of two pretty women assistants, orange robes, and a staff with a symbol of… something. Adopting a fake Indian accent, he makes up a set of lessons, mostly about finding inner strength inside yourself, and sets up a church in Phoenix, Arizona. He asserts in voiceover repeatedly that he intends to reveal himself to his followers at some point—that is, he never means to deceive anyone for a prolonged time, only to help them (and you) see the risks of such misplaced faith in gurus (or whatever sort) who will not, in the end, reveal their ruse.
Even during early encounters, his students seem disinclined to hear him: even as he tells them he is a “fake,” they choose to believe what they see, a figure who looks like their idea of a guru. They listen to him intently and also speak to the documentary cameras, proclaiming their belief in Kumaré. “Meeting Kumar,” says Vaneet, “I thought he had the positive energy.” A young woman admires his house (“I am totally inspired”), where she sits by the pool and gazes on his face. “I’m very aware of power versus force,” she attests, “And I feel like I’ve been forcing my marriage to work for a long time.” And still another confesses: “I’ve done other personal development work. This is the first time I felt a change in my DNA.”
Gandhi both exploits and expresses his discomfort with what seem like crushes. “Under this beard and this outfit,” he suggests, “I was just like them.” And… not. The followers who speak for the documentary are mostly are white and middle class, embodying a cultural and political context that remains unremarked here. Gandhi is awfully earnest, even as he addresses the parody he’s performing. “Helping others became the most important thing,” he says, then asks, “Was I helping anyone?” The question hovers: helping whom is important for whom? And what, exactly or not, is he helping anyone to do?
As Gandhi worries about his increasing involvement with his students, he wonders aloud why they come to him, and moreover, why he liked them coming to him. “It’s like when your mother tells you, ‘Be careful the face you make, because it will stay like that.’” The face Gandhi makes is, of course, shaped by the film, partly his own design and partly your reception of it. The film makes vivid and vaguely discomfiting fun of other spiritual mentors Kumaré meets. One couple’s followers believe them to be from another planet, and another calls himself an “acoustic theologist”: “In the beginning was the Word, vibration,” he says. “God is sound.” How he’s in touch with this sound or how such sound fits in among other, maybe less divine noise, remains elusive.
In the brief asides constituted by these interviews with other gurus, Kumaré brings another kind of attention to Gandhi’s performance. If all spiritual guidance must be a function of faith, then how might anyone assess what’s true or, as Gandhi phrases it, “fake.” The belief becomes the truth, whether it’s produced by need or by deceit. A documentary might purport to expose another sort of truth, but it’s hard to say where one sort begins and another ends. Gandhi suggests he’s moved by his students’ belief in him and offers evidence of his fretting over that belief—in scenes that show him fretting, pacing and holding his head, scenes plainly performed for the camera, which is not to say they’re not “true.”
Kumaré leaves unresolved the puzzle of how the performance begins and ends. That the cameras are on hand for the plan’s inception, that you know from the start that Kumaré is a fiction, suggests one view. But another evolves, as Gandhi sees how faith is constituted and pursued. And so it’s not clear whether Gandhi’s experience, as Kumaré and as Vikram, is the plan or whether it has emerged in the editing room or even in the moments recorded. The film explores at least in part the ways that relationships and beliefs are projections, based in desire and history that can’t always be articulated. Its observations on this phenomenon are at once obvious and troubling. This suggests that you are responsible for your readings of Gandhi’s self-performances, for his students and also for the film.