Friday, June 29, 2012
At end of Kumaré, an internal-journey-lite documentary that plays with the question of what constitutes true enlightenment the way a Boy Scout pokes at a campfire with a stick, New Jersey native Vikram Gandhi reveals his true identity to a small but devoted band of followers. For several months now, these people have been looking to Gandhi’s alter ego, Kumaré, for spiritual guidance and emotional sustenance, taking him at face value as the Indian-born, Apu-accented guru he’s been pretending to be. But it’s all been an elaborate ruse, set up to prove Ghandi’s thesis that “Spiritual leaders are a hoax.”
Initially announcing that he’s a skeptic when it comes to religious leaders of any kind, Gandhi seems to be setting us up for a tiresome, Religulous-style screed. His first encounters with middle American spiritual seekers, in his guise as the apparently guileless Kumaré, are generally played for laughs at the expense of the people he encounters, who look absurd as they chant his nonsense mantras or distort their bodies to mimic his made-up yoga poses.
Then Kumaré starts to develop real, apparently meaningful relationships with his followers, and his genuine openness to them and the grace with which he responds to their sometimes painfully earnest confidences shifts the narrative onto a whole new track, turning an elaborate prank into what appears to be a genuine, if poorly articulated, spiritual awakening.
“Childlike” is a roadworn cliché for the openhearted joy exuded by gurus like the one Gandhi is pretending to be, but when Kumaré lies on the floor with one of his followers, puts on her scuba diving mask, and mimes swimming motions while she laughingly talks him through a typical dive, they look just like a pair of preschoolers on a play date. That nonjudgmental joy and acceptance starts to permeate the film as Vikram relaxes into the role he created, becoming what he describes in voiceover as “his best self.” Living out the quote that opens the film—“Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience”—Gandhi experiences his own dogma on a visceral level, deriving strength from the people around him, learning how to live in the moment, and apparently shedding a lot of his negativity and skepticism while preaching to his followers about the importance of bonding with one another and finding “the guru within.”
Like a Hindu Oprah, Kumaré keeps hammering home his message of spiritual fulfillment through self-acceptance, expressing endless faith in his followers’ essential goodness and good sense and urging them to trust their own guts. That repetition can get a little tiring, making the movie feel overlong at just 84 minutes while leaving some important questions hanging. Did Gandhi intend to reveal himself to his followers from the start? If not, when and why did he change his mind? What was he thinking and feeling as he “became” Kumaré, and what made him so much happier in that guise than he had been as Vikram?
Part of the appeal seems to be that, as he says in his voiceover, “I connected a lot more deeply to people as Kumaré than I ever did as Vikram.” Sartre may have thought Hell was other people, but Gandhi appears to think other people are the way into Heaven, and the open heart that was much a part of his Kumaré persona as the saffron robes, gilt trident, and bin Laden-esque beard clearly let him get closer to other people than the skeptical, introspective persona he seems to have developed in his “real” life.
But what did Gandhi learn from this experience, other than the unsurprising fact that a lot of people will open up to just about anyone who really listens to them and treats them kindly, and that some will resent that person if he turns out to have been playing a part? What truth he was referring to when he said this was “the story of the biggest lie I’ve ever told and the greatest truth I’ve ever experienced”?
Like so many of the self-styled gurus it warns us to shun, Kumaré uses personal charisma to make a handful of oft-repeated truisms sound like something more. Don’t get me wrong: It’s a likeable film, and it does have something to say. It’s just not as profound as it wants us to think it is.
Written for TimeOff