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SXSW Movie Review: ‘Kumaré’

March 26, 2011

Kumaré is a good documentary. It (somewhat) does what it sets out to do, does it well, takes some daring chances, scores some laughs, and is a nice-enough movie-going experience. It’s premise is ingenious: Vikram Gandhi, a 30-ish lad of Indian descent, poses as the “enlightened guru” Kumaré and amasses a following among some of the spiritually attuned (and gullible) residents of Arizona.

Dispensing platitudinal and often comically obtuse wisdom, he nevertheless ingratiates himself to his followers, who soon (and not surprisingly) take him to be their confidant, asking questions far less abstract and, personally, much deeper than the lofty spiritual conundrums he poses.

It’s an interesting and daring and beautifully, beautifully shot documentary on the basic human need for connection, and yet it didn’t quite “click” with me, at least as much as it “clicked” with everyone else I spoke to who also saw it.

But first, the good: It is funny. Coming from a small farming community in the middle of Nowhere, Michigan, I don’t put much stock in New-Age spirituality—especially when it’s treated with dead seriousness by middle-aged herb merchants whose children are all named with some variant of “Moon.” But I’m also cosmopolitan enough to distinguish between light mocking and downright nastiness, and Kumaré deserves a lot of credit for never becoming outrightly cruel. Case in point: In one scene he adorns a follower with a holy symbol that curiously resembles the male genitalia. You can laugh at it because it’s a school-boy goof and just playful enough not to make you cringe.

In fact, no one I’ve discussed the film with has dropped the dreaded term “exploitative” despite Kumaré being a prime candidate for that criticism. I’d agree with their avoidance of that term, 1) like I said, even though he’s having a goof, he nevertheless treats his followers with some respect, and 2) Gandhi reveals the ruse at the end, opening himself up to whatever wrath he may have coming. I won’t spoil their reactions, but Gandhi at least was ready to bear the consequences. But there’s also 3), which is something I think many reviews have and will likely overlook: These people kind of deserve it. Well, they actually deserve worse. Frankly I think pretty much all New-Age gurus are conmen, whether they know it or not, and unconditionally trusting in someone you barely know is an invitation for liars, cheats, and sneak-thieves to fleece you. Given the circumstances, Gandhi is more honest and less exploitative than the next crook.

Kumaré doesn’t go into the amount (if any) Gandhi charged for his “lessons,” but I suspect that any money paid to his tutelage was eventually returned (or some offer to do so was made). But the larger point—and one of the most interesting points about Kumaré—is how easily, almost willingly, these people are to fool. Not to underplay Gandhi’s charade, but are a few yoga lessons and a liberal dosage of equivocacy all it takes? And how many started looking for a new “spiritual guide” after Gandhi revealed himself as a fraud?

These questions, which Kumaré purports to ask, are not asked, and that’s why it didn’t “click.” My colleague Brian Prisco called the movie “incredibly poignant” in his review, but I think that poignancy is despite the film: What his followers want—what everyone wants—is someone to talk to, someone to understand them, and these people find it in something they willingly don’t understand, because the belief in a higher power beyond one’s understanding likewise offers the possibility of that the great unknown can understand them. Gandhi understands that at the beginning, but as the film progresses, he forgets the goal of his project when he tries to maintain his friendships. Fair enough, but if he really wants to help these people, he should have been more critical. As odd as it reads, Kumaré should have been a bit more exploitative. Harsh as it is, Kumaré is too friendly with its subjects. He does them no favors with apologies. My point here is that the film never really achieves its goal, but the bulk of it is devoted to showing why it should.

…And it’s also gorgeous. With the possible exception of Rime of the Modern Mariner, Kumaré is the most cinematic documentary I saw at SXSW. The colors are rich, deep, and many, and decorate each close-up, long shot, overhead, and myriad other angles with the skill and eye of a talented photographer.

But that also works against Kumaré. I don’t doubt that Gandhi actually did this, but more than a few shots had me questioning whether they were staged. For example, the morning when Gandhi plans to reveal himself, there’s an overhead shot of “Kumaré” and his group sitting in a circle—this and many, many, many more shots look too good to be true, and while I ultimately don’t doubt the veracity of the film, it took me out of it. They’re so good they distract the viewer, even a casual one, into wondering how they got it.

There’s so many other discussions Kumaré will inspire, but I’ll sever my rantings for now. In the end, it’s in good company with Catfish to prompt endless debate. Both raise moral questions regarding (and conflating) the actual films and the filmmaking, and both are slathered with complexity. But what’s up there on the screen is merely good.



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