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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "Kumaré" Director Vikram Gandhi

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 3, 2011 at 6:28AM

"Kumaré" is a documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples and unveil his greatest teaching of all. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
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"Kumaré" is a documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples and unveil his greatest teaching of all. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

"Kumaré"
Documentary Competition
Director: Vikram Gandhi
Producer: Bryan Carmel, Brendan Colthurst, Stephen Feder
Cast: Vikram Gandhi, Purva Bedi, Kristen Calgaro
Cinematographer: Kahlil Hudson
Editor: Adam Barton, Nathan Russell
Sound: Tyrone Chu
Music: Ananda Shankar, Alex Kliment, Sanjay Khanna

Responses courtesy of "Kumaré" director Vikram Gandhi.

The journey to "Kumaré"...

From an early age, my parents exposed me to a huge library of literature, myths, and art from India and Burma. At the same time I was a child of 80s cartoons and television. At Columbia University, I was drawn to studying visual arts, religion, and literature but I consistently interned at film companies around New York. While at the Maysle Bothers my sophomore year, I realized that the only tool one really needed to make a film was a video camera. After working at an internet company for a year, I bought a used Canon XL-1 and just called myself ‘freelance.’ Pretty soon by the time my unemployment ran out, I was a working shooter/editor. The first time I got hired to shoot a documentary over seas and got paid, I realized this was a career. With "Kumaré," I was trying to merge my biggest creative influences – mythology and documentary.

From yoga to spiritual teaching...

About seven years ago, I set out make a documentary about the yoga industry/fad in NYC. I was quite sure, at that time, that America was just confusing getting a tight ass with getting closer to God. The film production began humbly: my holding a camera and talking to pretty girls about their spiritual experiences. Quickly this project evolved into my meeting spiritual leaders of all kinds. I was equally inspired as appalled by the people I met. I found that the only trait these people had in common was that people believed in them. Often students were far wiser and holy than the people they looked to for guidance. So I thought, what if I became a spiritual leader and made up my own teaching? I quickly realized that this was the film I really wanted to make.

I starting growing my hair and beard out, and tried talking in a Indian-ish accent. After our first trials, I realized not only that I was capable of convincing people of my character's authenticity, but also that the footage I was getting was far more compelling than any interview I had thus far captured. My producers Bryan Carmel and Brendan Colthurst, old friends from college and partners at my production company Disposable, helped me shape my years of experiences into a story and a mission. After we met Stephen Feder, who worked on Bruno, I knew we had assembled a team that could get this crazy idea off the ground.

Venturing into the unknown...

I wanted to make a film that really challenges our beliefs about spirituality. People often wrote off my scrutiny of the sacred as cynicism. I needed to transcend that stigma by challenging the very definition of sacred. I knew that if I was going to say anything profound about religion or belief, we could not be afraid to break the rules. We had to be willing to venture into the unknown.

My team and I had to be mentally prepared with a plan and an ideology that would guide our decisions. I wanted every experience we had to be as organic as possible, and therefore we needed to react quickly as we saw stories developing.

Also since I am a non-actor, the deeper I got into the production, the further I got into character. You can call it method acting, but I was just transforming myself into someone else by living like it. As a swami I grew up knowing used to teach, ‘fake it till you make it.’ Inevitably, the character of Kumaré began changing the person Vikram. I had to be ready to be humbled by the experience, and allow myself to be consumed by the monster that I had created.

The message...

Despite our highly technological age, questioning God remains a taboo in our culture. Religion is a sensitive subject. Our biggest challenge was making this film in a way that was not mean-spirited, that broke the rules while being compassionate. Part of this was working with a team of people who were interested in the greater ideas of this movie, and not fixated on the prank element. We knew we would push people's buttons but the point of the film was to understand something about humanity and spirituality, not to ridicule or hurt people. This coupled with my interest in meeting students organically, and never casting anyone, made this an especially delicate process.

Mingling with the hard-core crowd...

On a few days notice, we flew to India to the Kumbha Mela, the biggest and most unruly gathering of humans on earth, to shoot the opening credits of the film and the mythological back-story of Kumaré. Our handler from Delhi, who dreaded the Mela after his last experience bailed on us; so myself, my 2nd Unit DP, Dan Leeb, and my producer Bryan Carmel went. When we arrived, we were welcomed into a tent whose floor was being carpeted with fresh cow manure. Our contact there got us access to the most hard-core cult of Indian ascetics, the Naga Babas, famous for their nudity, irreverence, dreadlocks, and devotion to marijuana.

On the day of the Great Bath, I entered a pit of thousands of naked men shouting praises to Lord Shiva. Soon the howling crowd was stampeding toward the Ganga River. I was spit out covered in ash, garlands, and wearing only a loincloth.. By the time I found my crew, a few Hindu pilgrims began to touch my feet, asking for blessings. Bryan and I made eye contact for a split second, then we just went with it. I started reaching to the sky like I was possessed. Pretty soon, I was on a bridge blessing crowds of people with riot police rushing to break up the scene.

Next in the pipeline...

My next project is to assimilate myself, Vikram, back into society: to start wearing shoes and pants again, to go to the barber regularly, and to start sleeping indoors. I’ve also been practicing my American accent.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews