Much ado about a fake guru in ‘Kumaré’

THIS HANDOUT FILE HAS RESTRICTIONS!!! Director Vikram Gandhi as himself in the 2011 film "Kumaré," directed by Vikram Gandhi. NYTCREDIT: Kino Lorber 05kumare
Director Vikram Gandhi as himself in the 2011 film "Kumaré," directed by Vikram Gandhi. (Kino Lorber)

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‘Kumaré” couldn’t open more straightforwardly. “My name is Vikram Gandhi,” its director-narrator-protagonist announces, “and I wasn’t always a guru.” No, he wasn’t. The son of Indian immigrants, Gandhi looks like any other energetic suburban kid, glimpsed in a 1984 home video.

Bright and intellectually skeptical, he grew up in New Jersey and went to Columbia. He found himself directing that skepticism more and more on religion. “I guess my problem wasn’t with spirituality,” he said. “It was just with spiritual leaders. Why did we need them?”

Gandhi went to India and met various gurus. Many of them struck him as disappointing, at best, or outright frauds. He decided that he’d come back to the States and masquerade as a guru. His reasoning was, if he could successfully fake spiritual enlightenment, he could prove it was all fakery. So he let his hair grow and stopped shaving. He mimicked his grandmother’s accent and adopted the name Kumaré, meaning “manchild.”

“At first it was fun,” Gandhi recalls. “It was a prank.” He moved to Phoenix, taking two assistants with him. It would be interesting to hear from them, but we don’t. It also would be interesting to learn how Gandhi supported himself (and paid the assistants). He quickly acquires disciples — the movie’s true subject is credulity and spiritual neediness, though it’s not clear that Gandhi altogether recognizes this — but we never learn if Kumaré charges fees, accepts donations, or gets checks from his parents. (Gandhi’s in his early 30s.) Part of what makes “Kumaré” so slack and padded is a fundamental lack of curiosity, not least of all about the workings of its own enterprise. Gandhi takes an intriguing, offbeat premise but hardly develops it — and a premise left undeveloped is just a gimmick.

Kumaré/Gandhi takes a break from Phoenix, going to Tucson, something of a New Age capital. He meets with an “acoustic theologist” and gets lessons in “lava traction,” which sounds like something pickup trucks need around volcanoes. A disciple in Tucson has Kumaré’s photo on a small altar, flanked by one of President Obama and another of Osama bin Laden.

His Tucson interlude over, Kumaré/Gandhi returns to Phoenix. The film tells us as much about Kumaré’s disciples as it does about him. One’s a lawyer for Death Row inmates, another’s a woman with serious weight problems. But none of them, frankly, is especially compelling. Maybe if they were, they wouldn’t have been attracted to Kumaré? That’s an interesting point, intellectually, but it sure isn’t filmic.

“I always planned to unveil my true identity,” Gandhi says. “But first, as Kumaré, I had to teach something I believed in. And I would start with my own story.” The first time he gathers his followers (there are 14 of them) for the unveiling he can’t bring himself to do it. The second time he does. Clean-shaven and speaking without an accent, he tells them, “In each of you, there is a guru inside that I can see.” It’s a nice sentiment, if trite. Ditto Gandhi’s comment, “I realized I had connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”

What’s left unstated by Gandhi — because unnoticed? — is that that observation is all about him, not the people he connected with. There’s a Morgan Spurlock narcissism to “Kumaré.” It could just as well have been called “Super-Spiritualize Me.” But Spurlock has a point to make when he subsists solely on junk food or wallows in product placement. Kumaré is kind of bland and blank. It’s hard to take offense at him. (It’s also hard to understand what his followers see in him. He’s like Chauncey Gardner, Peter Sellers’s character in “Being There.”) But what is offensive is how the masquerade punks these other people — and to no seeming purpose, other than to provide Gandhi with footage for this documentary.