By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 15, 2011 at 4:32AM
In 2010, Indian-American filmmaker Virkam Gandhi went to Phoenix and invented a spiritual workshop from scratch. That's the premise of "Kumaré," a documentary that Gandhi assembled out of his experience, in which he created a fake spiritual guru, replete with heavy accent, far-out proclamations, and a tiny legion of followers. Gandhi intended to prove a point, play a prank, or maybe some unseemly combination of both. That's the appeal and the controversy of his provocative feature.
A longtime cynic from New Jersey, Gandhi recounts his mounting disdain for spiritual leadership, a result of being inundated with Indian traditions as a child. As a documentarian, he initially intended to capture the phenomenon of gurus around the world, but felt compelled to raise the stakes once he noticed that "the gurus were trying to out-guru each other," as he explains in voiceover. So he decided to join them, growing out his beard and inventing his own nonsensical meditation techniques. Collecting a few eager disciples, all white Americans with their own soul-searching conundrums to work out, Gandhi begins his teachings with the eventual intention of revealing his true identity.
The story is constructed, somewhat strangely, as a mixture of satire and rhetoric. (The actual feat outdoes the record that it happened.) Early scenes show Gandhi in his Kumaré persona, farcically posing in yoga moves in the Arizona desert, his two prankster female assistants at his side. The rest of the movie mainly shows Kumaré's off-the-cuff meditation sessions, in which he rambles on about discovering a blue light and finding the inner-self, advice that his disciples eagerly embrace. He gives them nonsense to chant and they happily oblige. They speak of Kumaré's mastery without ever questioning his credentials (or, if they do, Gandhi doesn't include the footage). Interviews with Kumaré devotees peppered throughout the movie show the intense convictions they take from his teachings, raising the question of whether the true identity of the guru actually makes a difference.
Although initially comic in tone, "Kumaré" eventually moves away from that angle and aims for a more introspective portrait of spiritual growth. Gandhi claims his intentions are sincere, hoping to prove that everyone has the capacity to discover their "inner guru" rather than taking guidance from a superior.
Nevertheless, logistical questions remain. The director talks about his hesitation to unveil himself to his followers at the risk of ruining the positive vibes he has passed along. But he refrains from showing himself out of character while in the process of duping his devotees, so it's never entirely clear just how immersed in the role he has become. Was he a 24/7 method actor or did he head backstage to celebrate his successful prank at the end of each day?
Structural problems aside, "Kumaré" succeeds at creating a thoughtful depiction of performance art, if not a particularly funny one. Cautious to avoid mean-spirited jabs at his subjects, Gandhi avoids the harsh condescension of similar non-fiction exposés, such as Penn & Teller's abrasive "Bullshit" series or the average Sacha Baron Cohen sketch. That may allow spiritual types an access point to his work, but it keeps the movie from achieving a confident tone.
Ghandi makes it clear that he actually came to appreciate the earnestness behind a mass desire to accept spiritual concepts for the sake of personal satisfaction. However, that doesn't alter the nature of his prank, which he describes as "the biggest lie I've ever told and the greatest truth I've ever experienced." He just makes it hard to tell where the lie ends and the truth begins.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Due to the moral gray area of Gandhi's project, "Kumaré" could generate a large amount of media interest and perform well in limited release, but the controversy seems more likely to promote Gandhi himself, rather than his movie.
criticWIRE grade: B+