Alter Ego: Vikram Gandhi’s Documentary “Kumaré” Shows More than it Tells

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


Religion has fostered one of the great ongoing dialogues over the course of time in world history. Any subset alone is rife potential for a great, perhaps controversial, discussion. Documentarian Vikram Gandhi bites off this giving tree in his new documentary, Kumaré, more a piece of personal propaganda than it is an inquest into just what draws people to the world of faith and to follow leaders for their own guidance.

Gandhi, a first-generation immigrant who emerged from a Hindu family, claims to have been fascinated by the swamis and gurus out in the world, most of whom, he considers, have turned the practice into a self-serving fraud. After a “research” trip to India, Gandhi sets out on a social experiment of sorts – one determined to be documented on film – to become his own guru. Christening himself Sri Kumaré, the Jersey-bred Indian finds a group of followers out in Phoenix where he resolves to become the Harold Hill of the yoga world.

What results is self-serving image material, but while Gandhi’s experiment fails on one level but also succeeds at another one. Kumaré, a sharply-honed piece of filmmaking, is certainly an amusing portrait of one man’s (self-serving) journey of discovery. It’s entertaining in the way that Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire and Some Like It Hot all taught their masquerading male leads empathy; being a woman showed them how to be better men. Except Kumaré, which is not fiction, offers no similar lessons. Gandhi routinely mentions facts and theories ranging from why people need faith and why they need him as a mirror to stating that many gurus sleep outside (does it ever rain in Phoenix?!) but never explains why. Broadway’s The Book of Mormon asked many of these same questions, but did so in a way that was both spiritually profound and hella entertaining. Kumaré, conversely, offers an abundance of narration, but its more description than analysis. There’s no thesis to his time in the desert.

Because Gandhi steers clear of many of these questions, what draws us into the documentary are the people who share their life stories with Kumaré, which include job and financial disappointment, relationship strike, and past drug abuse. These are people longing to belong as part of their path to finding themselves, most movingly an overweight mother suffering from empty nest syndrome. While it comes as no surprise and the doc offers no insight, it is fascinating watching these unsuspecting folks drawn to their leader, underscored by a very real current of tension knowing that at some point, the truth about Kumaré’s could emerge and devastate them. There are quite a few attributes on which the film should be complimented, particularly Alex Kliment’s evocative music, cinematographer Kahlil Hudson’s visual acuity, and the editing team of Adam Barton and Nathan Russell, who know how to package a taut story. But chief among them is Gandhi’s overall humorous yet respectful tone – he knows better than to condescend to Kumaré’s followers. He’s savvy enough to know that the only one the film should ever skewer is himself. Kumaré certainly isn’t the most educational documentary around, but it is enlightening in ways both unexpected and welcome.

For more information about Kumaré, go to www.kumaremovie.com.

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