Film Review: Kumaré

A bogus guru sends a message about the nature of spiritual leadership today in this “Is it for real?” documentary.

“People always seem to need a führer,” Marlene Dietrich once observed, and this would seem to apply to those in need of spiritual guidance as well as the Nazis. With that in mind, and noting the bogus nature of so many self-ordained modern-day gurus, Vikram Gandhi, a filmmaker from New Jersey, moved to Phoenix and transformed himself into “Sri Kumaré,” a comically accented, bearded yogi from a fictional Indian village. He actually managed to attract a number of adulatory followers and filmed the entire process, including his eventual unmasking of himself to them.

We’re definitely in Borat-land again, but Gandhi’s approach to the people he dupes is of a kinder, gentler nature, as he himself finally begins to question what he’s doing and the deception he’s foisted on all these all-too-trusting souls-in-need. They’re all pretty sweet people, and include a crack addict in recovery, a young woman in the throes of a dying marriage, and a female lawyer who works with death-row convicts. Like ducks in a row, they all fall quickly under Kumaré’s spell, as he leads them in a number of fake yoga exercises, all the while exhorting them to find “the blue light” with blandly accessible mantras like “Be all you can be” and “Embrace an illusion for the ultimate truth about yourself.”

The joke begins to wear thin, as there’s just so much humor and entertainment value to be wrung from seeing nice people duped, which Gandhi becomes aware of in a have-it-both-ways denouement that rather plays out like the climaxes of The Music Man, The Rainmaker and all those other works that feature a charming con man who ultimately shows his believers that it was themselves all along they should have believed in.

This viewer certainly had some questions on his mind watching Kumaré, which at times seems more mocku- than actual documentary. Throughout the entire film, the cinematography has a pristine sheen to it and fluid camera movement worlds away from any actual vérité lensing. You also have to wonder about Kumaré’s followers, some of whom felt so betrayed by his ultimate revelation that they completely cut off contact with him. Haven’t any of them actually resurfaced to either recall or excoriate their experience? The whole thing, while often diverting, plays out far too neatly and is at least 20 minutes too long, as Gandhi gets bogged down in repetitive footage of points more than well-made. His personal physical attractiveness, as with so many successful gurus, undoubtedly played a big part in his appeal. Had he looked like the Gandhi we know from history in these shallower, determinedly telegenic days, I highly doubt that he ever would have inspired such a following.