Hot Docs review: “Kumare”

Filmmaker Vikram Gandhi grows a beard and dons the guise of an Indian guru for Kumare, a surprisingly thoughtful comedy doc that explores the thin line between faithful believers and brainwashed cultists.
May 2, 2011

Part Borat-style prankumentary and part thoughtful exploration of gurus and religion, Vikram Gandhi’s 84-minute doc Kumaré offers plenty of laughs with its off-the-wall take on faith and its many guises.

The doc sees Gandhi, an Indian-American born and raised in New Jersey, presenting himself as a religious skeptic, baffled by his heritage and its appropriation by New Age yoga studios across the U.S.

After traveling to India and meeting with self-styled religious gurus at home and abroad, Gandhi – star and director – decides to try his hand as one of said gurus, in a somewhat cruel bid to show those who he sees as simple-minded zealots how fruitless their beliefs are. He grows out his hair and beard, teaches himself yoga, and learns to imitate his grandmother’s voice for a faux-Indian accent, the latter a move which brings much humor to the film.

Adopting the handle of Guru Kumaré, Gandhi travels to Arizona under the rather thin pretext of exploring how easy it will be to get Midwestern Americans to buy into his ‘new age bullshit.’ Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be not too hard at all, with yoga enthusiasts flocking to him for guidance, counseling, and New Age life training.

As the doc progresses, Gandhi faces an increasing moral quandary, with an array of core disciples beginning to follow his every move. What really shines through in these scenes is the desperation of these people – among them a recovering crack addict and a young wife struggling in her nascent marriage – to believe in the power of something other-worldly.

As such, the film adopts a somewhat sad tone as Gandhi repeatedly tells his disciples outright that he is a fake, that he is not as he seems, and that he is not really a guru – albeit while cloaked in the veil of his robes and accent. To this his followers nod and smile, clearly trying to decipher the true meaning of his obviously-not-to-be-taken-at-face-value phrases.

By the film’s close, he decides to come completely clean with his followers, resulting in an interesting dénouement sure to be much discussed by theatre-goers.

On the whole, the film, which picked up the audience award at South By Southwest in Texas earlier this year, starts very strongly, ends somewhat strongly, and is only slightly meandering in the third quarter. Gandhi and his team pull no punches about playing for laughs, but the end result provides more pause for thought than might initially be expected.

Kumare plays again during Hot Docs at Cumberland 2 on Sunday, May 8 at 3.30 P.M. EST.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.