Kumare Movie Review

My review of the movie Kumare
At first glance, Kumare, a documentary that bills itself as “the true story of a false prophet,” appears take a page out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s provocative oeuvre. How pleasantly surprising that this is not the case. Not only is Vikram Gandhi, the director and protagonist, significantly bolder in riling up a veritable hornet’s nest of hot-button issues, especially the big R-eligion, but he does away with borderline-mean-spirited snark in favor of a thoughtful presentation of a very relevant and timely social experiment.
Kumare is an inquiry into the nature of faith. Jersey-born, Brooklyn film maker Vikram Gandhi sets out to find out if there is a real-deal guru out there by impersonating one. His travels through India and study of religion in college do not bring him any closer to answers and instead reaffirm the idea that the gurus he encounters are egocentric, profit-minded, interested only in “out-guruing one another,” self-aggrandizing, and downright manipulative. He recalls the peacefulness emanating from his Grandma when she prayed and wonders about the source of that feeling. Thus, Kumare is born. Growing out his hair and beard, donning orange robes and an ornate walking staff, Gandhi transforms himself into a guru, modeling his accent after his Grandma’s. As any spiritual leader worth his salt, he heads into the desert. Phoenix, Arizona, to be precise. 

Kumare refreshingly works on two levels—in one sense, it pokes fun of the power of hype in building a mythos and get followers by merely surrounding oneself with the trappings of spiritualism—namely yoga moves, vague-sounding-enough platitudes, and a publicist. At the same time, however, Gandhi has clearly done his homework. Before he invents his made-up yoga hand-wind-milling bogus poses, he ostensibly has learned the real ones. His blue light meditation seems to have some roots in visualization meditation techniques. In other words, to learn how to be fake, he has to learn what passes for real first?
What shines through most in the film is that instead of being an expose on the dark underside of America’s billion-dollar-industry quest for spirituality-in-a-box quick fixes [the yoga “industry” as one major example], it is ultimately a story about humans and our basic search for a connection. Kumare’s disciples are people one could relate to—a death penalty attorney, a single mom with an empty nest syndrome, and a former cocaine addict/real estate agent. And like everyday people, they are looking for someone “with knowledge” to be the barometer/sign post for their own life’s direction. In other words, they need someone to tell them what to do and more importantly, make them believe that he knows more than they do so they feel confident in following his advice. There is the rub—Kumare’s ultimate message, revealed on his “The Great Unveiling Day,” is that the guru is within all of us. While not particularly ground-breaking, it is nevertheless, an often forgotten mantra. Instead of focusing on the more selfish, “just do what you want,” aspect of it, however, it is more along the lines of, “nobody knows much about anything, even if he calls himself a guru. Maybe especially so.”
To Gandhi’s credit, while the movie features some chuckle-worthy moments [as in when he meets a woman who espouse the visualization technique of making your wishes come true by gluing pictures of cars and money on her “desire board”], it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative as it could have considering its snake oil salesman premise. There are also a couple of jabs in the film at the cultural appropriation nuances that come along with the West’s fascination with India and its yogic culture—as in, Kumare is revered by virtue of his being from India alone [as opposed to an American-born Indian from Jersey].
Gandhi genuinely starts caring for his “followers,” and ends up having a positive impact on their lives. His own journey throughout the film is also very compelling. Ultimately, the phrase “fumbling toward ecstasy” rings true. His disciples really just need someone to listen to them and pay attention and as such, Kumare is a trenchant commentary on the disenfranchisement that is pervasive throughout society and the distance between people that pushes them to seek that special contact and meaning that could just as easily come from another human being or oneself from a more mystical source.

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