Going into "Kumaré," you really want to hate Vikram Gandhi.
A native of New Jersey, he is skeptical of gurus and yoga and other trappings of his Hindu heritage -- in part because his family embraces them. A trip to India merely reinforces these beliefs -- it's a competition, he figures, with one guru no more legitimate than the next, no matter where they live. So he decides that he will pose as a guru himself, attract a following, see what happens.
And make a movie about it.
It sounds cynical and self-serving. Gandhi may be working out his own issues, but he is also, after all, taking advantage of people who are searching for answers, some desperately. Yet as "Kumaré" plays out, both Gandhi and the film become something else, something much more thoughtful and moving.
It is, as he puts it, the biggest lie he has ever told and the greatest truth he has ever known.
Gandhi grows out his hair and his beard, learns some yoga, hires a couple of people to help him and moves to Phoenix. People there might embrace his teachings, he figures, and it's far enough away from home that there is no chance of anyone recognizing him.
No one does. In a surprisingly short time, he manages to attract people to a class. They are so hungry for some sort of peace in their lives that you feel equal parts sorry for them and angry at Gandhi for luring them in.
And yet ... no. Something is going on here. His followers include a death-row attorney, an obese woman, a recovering addict and a few spiritually inclined people. Although he dresses in robes and adopts an accent that he bases on his grandmother's, he listens intently -- something many of these people clearly crave. He also stresses that the answers they seek to their problems lie within them.
He does this to such a great extent, in fact, that he pretty much tells them, in a manner of speaking, that he is faking. Yet they don't pick up on this -- they hear what they want to hear. They are so in need of some sort of spiritual awakening that they will look for it wherever they may find it.
For his part, Kumaré -- he has fully embraced the role at this point -- is making it up as he goes along. The yoga poses, the chants, all of it. Still, his followers find value in what he is teaching, no matter where it's coming from.
Gandhi narrates the film in a voiceover, using his regular American accent. It's as if he and Kumaré are two different people, and in many ways they are. Later he will say that Kumaré represents the best part of him, and it's easy to believe that this is true.
The concern is that Gandhi is making fun of people's faith, their beliefs (and some of them are much farther out there than his alter ego's). But this does not seem to be the case. Instead, he seems to provide a genuine service for these people. They are hungry for meaning in their lives, and Kumaré provides it, or at least a reasonable facsimile. Even if it isn't the genuine item, it gives them some sort of peace and fulfillment.
And who's to say it isn't genuine? If what Kumaré teaches is of value in these people's lives, is that not enough?
You'll have to watch till the end to find out. It doesn't give too much away about the way things turn out to say that many lessons are learned here, by many people -- by Gandhi as much as the people he tricks, and in many ways, inspires, no matter what his original intentions.— B. Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
Tue & Wed September 11 & 12, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 2011, in English, color, 84 min • official site