Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Synopsis from the film's site:
Sri Kumaré is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people. Now, he is conflicted -- can he unveil the truth to these disciples with whom he has spent so much time, and who now look to him for guidance?

Vikram takes us back to where his story began. From an early age, he questioned the meaning of religion and spirituality. Was it all just make believe, or was there something real beyond the realm of our understanding? As a young adult, Vikram found himself perplexed that, just as he was leaving his Hindu faith behind, America was embracing Indian spirituality in the form of yoga studios and gurus who claimed to be on a higher spiritual plane. When he began filming these gurus for a documentary, he discovered there was nothing special about who they were or what they did -- they were no more holy than anyone else. In order to prove this, Vikram decides to transform himself into one of them: Sri Kumaré, a guru of his own creation. If he can build a following as Kumaré, wouldn’t it demonstrate that spiritual authenticity is just an illusion that wecreate? So he grows out his hair and beard, acquires the bells and whistles of Indian mystics, affects an accent, and transforms himself into the wise Indian Guru Kumaré.

Kumaré sets off to Phoenix, Arizona to build a following. He takes with him two disciples -- Kristen to teach yoga and Purva to book events -- who will become Kumaré’s first followers and greatest public messengers. At first it is easier than he imagined -- everywhere he goes, people revere him because of how he looks and behaves, despite his lack of a substantive teaching. When people ask to be blessed, Vikram invents a blessing and starts to deliver it: a blue light that he imagines in his head and shoots out onto people, with their foreheads pressed against his. Then something amazing happens. People really start to feel the blue light. It might be something Vikram made up, but it’s very real to those who experience it.

More and more people begin showing up to his events, and soon a core group of devoted students emerge. The powers and temptations of being a Guru soon become clear to Vikram. But it is all fun and games until people start to put serious faith in him -- and pour their hearts out to him. Vikram finds that if he isn't careful, he might just overstep his bounds and significantly change the course of his disciples' lives in ways that are beyond his control. What can he say when a woman comes to him for advice about whether to leave her husband, or when a former drug addict begins to look to upon him as a role model? Would they feel the same way about Vikram that they do about Kumare?

If Vikram is really going to push Kumaré to his infinite potential, he’ll need to teach something he believes with his entire being. He builds his teaching around the one thing he feels strongly about: that his disciples don’t need a guru -- that the guru is inside each of us. He calls his teaching The Mirror -- Kumaré is only a mirror that people can use to gaze upon their own infinite potential, which is already deep inside themselves. Kumaré begins to proclaim this message, and all who hear it are receptive. At the same time, something happens which Vikram could never have anticipated: for the first time he starts to feel the blue light himself.

Vikram forms deep attachments to many of these students, but all the while he wonders why he had to take on this other persona just to connect with people? Vikram makes a promise to himself: soon he will unveil his true identity to his disciples in order to prove his point. He spends more time with his disciples relating to them one-on-one and teaching them to embrace their gurus within. He asks them each to make promises to themselves -- whether it’s following through on promises to a loved one, committing to a healthier diet, or learning how to respect themselves. Vikram is awed when his students take his guidance very seriously, and he starts to see them making the first steps towards positive changes in their lives.

By the time he is to unveil, Vikram realizes why other gurus don't unveil themselves: he cares too much for his disciples who have now made serious and substantial changes to improve their lives, and they claim it is all because of Kumaré. When Kumaré reveals his greatest teaching of all: his true self, the reaction will shock, surprise, and even inspire all who see it.

Writes STEPHEN HOLDEN in The New York Times:
“Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience.” That quotation from the Anglican priest William Ralph Inge, which begins the documentary “Kumaré: The True Story of a False Prophet,” evokes the film’s ambiguous exploration of religion, teaching and spiritual leadership.
Vikram Gandhi talks about how he came to make his documentary “Kumaré,” about his alter ego, a yoga teacher from a fictional place.

When Vikram Gandhi — the movie’s New Jersey-born director, protagonist and narrator — grows a beard and flowing hair and dons Indian robes to make a film in which he poses as a swami, you anticipate a cruel, “Borat”-like stunt. Cynics will expect a nasty chortle when this glib charlatan finally pulls the rug out from under his credulous followers.

But the outcome is much more complicated.

Disturbed by the yoga craze in the United States, Mr. Gandhi, a self-described first-generation immigrant from a Hindu background, travels to India and discovers that the swamis desperately trying to “outguru” one another are, he says, “just as phony as those I met in America.”

After returning to the United States, he transforms himself into Sri Kumaré and travels to Phoenix, where he gathers a circle of disciples. Imitating his grandmother’s voice, he imparts mystical truisms in halting, broken English. With his soulful brown eyes and soft, androgynous voice, he is a very convincing wise man.

Initially, Mr. Gandhi recalls, “I wanted to see how far I could push it.” He is shown presiding at one gathering with a picture of himself between portraits of Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden. But his earnest followers, including a death-row lawyer, a recovering cocaine addict and a morbidly obese young woman, are sympathetic, highly stressed Americans who pour out their troubles.

As Mr. Gandhi warms to these people, who demonstrate an unalloyed faith in his wisdom, the film becomes a deeper, more problematic exploration of identity and the power of suggestion, and its initially sour taste turns to honey. The meditations, mantras and yoga moves he invents, however bogus, transform lives, as his followers discover their inner gurus and gain a self-mastery.
More here.


Writes Vikram Gandhi in Kumare: The Time I Became A Guru
Six years ago, I filmed a gang of sadhus (spiritual ascetics) smoking weed on the banks of the Holy Ganga in Northern India. Their guru stepped away from a young European woman meditating under a banyan tree, and approached me, machete in hand. "You want to know about gurus?" He popped a squat, and lit up a bidi. "All those big gurus you see, they are not spiritual people. All they want is money. It's not that easy man... Living a spiritual life is very difficult." That night, they swapped the pot for heroin.

Back home in New York City, I filmed the world around me embracing the "spiritual life," or at least one packaged into a healthful 90-minute alternative to aerobics class. The modern definition of yoga is convoluted as the postures yogis aspire to. Symbols, smells, words, icons, and religions of the East became an easy aesthetic for branding and marketing. Was the culture I grew up in becoming just a marketing scheme for a flourishing industry? In yoga class, was I the only one who wasn't feeling the vibe of getting enlightened? And why were people all of a sudden bowing down to people in robes with expensive philosophies and the promises of happiness? I became skeptical of anyone who sold a spiritual product, anyone who claimed to be holier than anyone else, anyone who said they had the answer.

Since those days as one-man crew, my answers and strong opinions have turned more into questions. As a documentarian on the edge of a subculture for years, the lives of the characters I met have come full circle -- almost repeating the same plot lines as the teachers that fell decades before them. I've tried Iyengar, Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Kundalini, Anusara, and met the founders, inventors, entrepreneurs, and gurus in many traditions. I've also chanted (reluctantly and enthusiastically), set intentions, retained breath, hugged a saint -- or rather got hugged by one, received blessings, blessed, fasted, veg'd out, finished a first series, kriya-ed, flossed my nose, taken pilgrimages, avoided dysentery, bathed in the royal baths, found moments of deep tranquility, gave in to temptation, restrained it, fluctuated mentally, and even saw a most surreal event called an International Yoga Competition. I've said 'No, it's Vikram with a V' more than any other phrase these past few years. I learned from this, that practice never makes anyone perfect. We are all the same -- flawed, yet capable of greatness.

More Here.

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