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March 3, 2011 6:28 AM
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Meet the 2011 SXSW Filmmakers | "Kumaré" Director Vikram Gandhi

Vikram Gandhi's "Kumaré." SXSW.

"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.

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15 Comments

  • Emmie | July 8, 2012 10:27 AMReply

    Kimbery. Every thing you say is about your life is so familiar. I was very inspired by you and would like to thankyou for being so strong but so gentle. This doco left me feeling very upset, angry at Kumare for what he did, but still enthralled and in tears as well. I wish all of the gentle souls in this doco much love and peace. You are all very brave.

  • wpease | May 6, 2012 8:59 AMReply

    Pretty awful. For all of the preparation, still facile and superficial. Nothing too deep here.

  • Danny | June 5, 2011 11:45 AMReply

    Haha, these comments are too funny. You people got sucked in because you are gullible. Take it on the chin. This film sounds awesome..!

  • Kimberly | April 2, 2011 9:59 AMReply

    It wasn't a lie. He told us all the way through the teachings that it was just an illusion. Everyone that participated, had the choice to believe or not to believe. No one likes to find out that what we think is true, is something other than what we want it to be. Look at all of our teachings through out time and how many scientists and researchers find things to be different than what we are taught.

    I was not there to follow but to learn more about myself. I was at a point in my life where I had never been before. I had no one that need me or depended on me caring for them. I was trying to find out who I truly was.

    Through out my life, I have been a daughter, a sister, wife, mother, bread winner, caregiver, employee and I never really knew who Kimberly was.

    We as women go through our entire life making sure everyone else is taken care of but ourselves. Kumare' opened my eyes to see that all I needed to do is go deep inside of myself to find out who I am.

    One night Kumare' was in my loft and I was showing him my pictures (a shrine, as he called it) of my family. He brought it to my attention that I did not have any pictures of myself on display. He asked me why I did not have pictures of myself out. I could not answer his question. It took me many weeks of meditating and analyzing his question to come up with the answer. I never truly saw myself as important enough or worthy of being in a picture on the wall. I did not love or care for myself as I cared and loved for others.

    I was hurt when I found out that Kumare' was not real. Hurt because I had allowed myself to trust again. I had not been able to do this for a very long time. But I also was very grateful for his teachings and helping me understand that I am my own guru and I am the only one that I need to change my life and begin loving me for the wonderful beautiful woman I truly am.

    I only wish that more people could get to know Kumare' and Virkam as I know him. He his a loving and caring young man. I have a special place in my heart for him as Kumare' and himself as Virkam. He is like a son to me and he will always have a friend in Arizona.

  • gardenofchaos | March 26, 2011 1:40 AMReply

    The movie is about people's willingness to believe anything and desire to be led by some one "holy". I think it's an astounding testament to our times. People are searching for something and they don't realize that they're capable of finding answers everywhere around them.

    @the angry comments above: Why would it matter more if he indeed was a "holy" man. No matter where the source is from, the wisdom is the same. LOL UMAD, BRO? If you need a spiritual teacher to hold your hand, you're always going to be lost on your own.

  • Sangeetha | March 21, 2011 8:12 AMReply

    I think it's brilliant! Blind faith in the 21st century is revealed.

  • Jonathan | March 15, 2011 3:42 AMReply

    "YOU LIED to everyone in it to produce a movie at low cost to you by paying NO-ONE and EXPLOITED us all for your own selfish and monetary goals !!! That is NOT spiritual it is just EVIL."

    "To think that someone would use something as sacred as one’s spirituality to trick people into believing he himself is a guru is just plain SICK."

    "This guy has got some ego problems - What deceit and and lies for his own personal gain!"

    So it's not okay for a filmmaker to do it, but it's totally cool the pope, priests, preachers, rabbis, imams, etc to do it all the time?

  • Sarah Rothmann | March 15, 2011 1:35 AMReply

    When will it be available for mass distribution so I can get a copy...have to at least see myself in a movie for a few shots since I didnt go past day two of the seminar.

  • jennifer | March 14, 2011 11:22 AMReply

    Just saw the movie at south by southwest and it was INCREDIBLE!!! Well done, vikram, and all the producers. It was eye-opening and filled with unbelievable moments that were filled with pure and raw emotion. Everyone MUST see this film. Highly recommended.

  • Roger | March 14, 2011 6:59 AMReply

    This guy has got some ego problems - What deceit and and lies for his own personal gain! This will come back around on him, and in the years to come he will be humbled by the ramifications of his wrong doing.

  • katy applebottom | March 13, 2011 11:08 AMReply

    It is so clear that this filmmaker doesn't have a real creative bone in his body. To think that someone would use something as sacred as one's spirituality to trick people into believing he himself is a guru is just plain SICK. The director seems like a spoiled Indian boy who was bored and confused about his own spirituality and decided to take it out on society. I bet mom and dad are sorry they sponsored this "project". This is the furthest thing from a true documentary I've ever seen. Just because you can afford a nice camera doesn't mean you should make films! I can't even believe this was accepted into SXSW! BTW- this movie was already made in 2002, it's called the GURU...and it's a comedy. Maybe you should change your films title to "Vikram Gandhi- diary of a snake charmer". I believe it's a much more appropriate title for such a narcissistic film.

  • Kapow | May 22, 2012 4:58 PM

    "To think that someone would use something as sacred as one's spirituality to trick people into believing he himself is a guru is just plain SICK"....
    Each and everyone had A CHOICE! NO ONE WAS FORCED! IT WAS THEIR OWN DECISION. They wanted to surender, they needed the 'guidance' to motivate themselves; if not this gure, it'd be someone else coming along.
    Who knows,- maybe they'll approach the next 'real' guru with some much-needed scepticism.
    Great lesson in how feeble the mind is.

  • Servant | March 13, 2011 3:00 AMReply

    The ONLY TRUTH about this movie is that YOU LIED to everyone in it to produce a movie at low cost to you by paying NO-ONE and EXPLOITED us all
    for your own selfish and monetary goals !!! That is NOT spiritual it is just EVIL.

  • Sarah Rothmann | March 10, 2011 6:17 AMReply

    I sent an email to futureblissfilms....I was the only one, as far as I know, that wasnt fooled....and probably the only one, as far as I know, that isnt signing one of those "revoking consent" forms. Ahhh its good to follow your intuition when you have a spot on one!

  • Sasha Bajac | March 6, 2011 9:41 AMReply

    You guys fooled us there :) at Kumnbh.
    Even though we thought: Oh, another fake spiritual guy that made a guru out of himself in the land of the naive and ignorant the US of A, we still thought that you were real as far as playing your part to the full :) Now we know you were acting for real!!!
    I hope you guys made a nice film, it was nice meeting you there. :)