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SXSW ’11 | “Borat” Gets Religion: An Interview With “Kumare” Director Vikram Gandhi

SXSW '11 | "Borat" Gets Religion: An Interview With "Kumare" Director Vikram Gandhi

In “Kumaré,” director Vikram Gandhi plays the titular character, a guru from a fictional village in India who travels to Arizona to spread the gospel of his own brand of yoga that includes a special “blue light” ritual that doesn’t exist beyond Gandhi’s creation of it for the film. The marketing efforts at SXSW for “Kumaré” included an impromptu prayer circle performed by Kumare and his “followers” inside the Austin Convention Center and a simple Xerox plastered on telephone poles around the city that featured a photo of “Borat” director Larry Charles and his quote: “You must see ‘Kumaré.'”

The inference is clear: “Kumaré” is “Borat” gets religion. As such, there’s been a good deal of buzz for the title (which won the documentary feature audience award at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival awards ceremony March 15) — and already, a lot of backdraft. (See the comments on this story.) It’s the first feature from Gandhi and his production company, Disposable TV. indieWIRE sat down with Gandhi and one of his producers, Bryan Carmel, to talk about the making of the film.

Vikram Gandhi and Bryan Carmel. [Photo Credit: Bryce J. Renninger/indieWIRE]

indieWIRE: Can you talk a little bit about the process of making this film?

Vikram Gandhi: When I started developing the character, it started off as a seed of an idea. I tried out being Kumaré three years ago to feel out what it was about. I’ve been working on it since last September full time. Now that I’m done, we’re trying to do projects that we really want to. We were working on this documentary that you see in the beginning of the film, filming a lot of spiritual teachers. It became this encyclopedia of American religion. I learned a lot from these people. During this time, I discovered that the experiment of Kumaré was something that I was really interested in doing. When we tried doing it, what we were getting out of this project was really great. It opened my eyes, Kumaré was the project I really wanted to do more.

Bryan Carmel: [Vikram] started hosting yoga classes just for our friends, after he got certified, he did practice classes with people who knew he was Vikram.

iW: And how did you develop all of the rituals? How did you make up yoga poses?

VG: Literally everything is based on an encyclopedia of authentic yoga postures. As far as what is documentable in historical yoga, there’s only a few postures that are considered authentic. Any physical movement is not authentic but can be a part of this huge encyclopedia of yoga. It’s actually a part of Kundalini yoga. I realized you can kind of meditate on anything really. A lot of the poses I made up are very similar to real things. There are other things that are legitimate. Modern-day yoga — Ashtanga yoga — incorporates military exercises from England, wrestling exercises, gymnastics.

iW: But the film doesn’t show this history of yoga. Why did you leave this out?

VG: I wanted this movie to not be about yoga. It’s about everyone’s search for spirituality. It’s about faith. Ultimately, I wanted it to be just about people who are into yoga and gurus.

iW: How did the Larry Charles connection come about?

VG: We sent it to him, and I like his work. He’s a seasoned director. It was cool to hear his feedback. He really got all the ideas and the concepts of the movie. He’s worked on “Religulous;” he’s used to these ideas, and he was a really cool person to get to see it.

BC: “Borat” goes after racists, anti-Semites, homophobes. We’re not going after anybody. We can’t go after anyone looking for spiritual answers. We wanted it not to be about people looking ridiculous. We wanted this to be about something more real.

VG: Also, the idea came before I knew about “Borat.” When those things are put into the public eye, you start hearing about it and you get influenced it, like this has already been done this way.

BC: When they [Sacha Baron Cohen & Larry Charles] film someone, they never see them again.

iW: Most of the film is set in Arizona. How did you end up deciding to take Kumaré there?

VG: I felt something about Arizona. It’s very “American.” People have a lot of their own ideas. We were driving and there was someone with a Hummer that had a sticker that said “Rekhi master.” Ultimately, I told the team we should go to Phoenix. We wanted to go somewhere we didn’t know anybody.

iW: And when you were all done shooting, how did you transition back into the real world?

VG: After the unveiling ceremony, I started to edit. It sucks to be an edit room and get sick. I was worried about getting sucked into the NY lifestyle and not having nature around, and I had been such a healthy lifestyle as Kumaré, so I was worried. So I went to Boulder and convinced my editor to go out there.

An image of the posters outside of the film’s SXSW screenings. [Photo Credit: Bryce J. Renninger/indieWIRE]

iW: In a way, this film has a very strong, I’d say religious, message. How do you feel about crafting this message?

VG: The intention of the movie and myself are the same thing. It’s all about a strong teaching. We always said to my students it was a radical thing. Kumaré was telling everyone the same thing — ultimately, it’s all about what’s inside of you.

BC: We were terrified when Vikram did unveil. The fact that people were happy mostly was a testament to the fact that people got it. We just tried our best to relate all this stuff.

VG: Don’t fixate on this accent, don’t fixate on the clothes you wear. It’s interesting how the reaction to this foreigner is one of this — there’s some person out in the world that’s more spiritual and more enlightened. In India, people have dreams of people who come from the mountains who are more spiritual.

iW: And how effective do you think your message was on your students?

VG: What I know comes from the people who are in contact with me the most — these people who email me and check in on me and check in with them. Obviously, the ones I’m in contact with are the ones whose emotions are very positive. I’m here to talk with everybody. I didn’t want to admit that I was learning from them at first.

iW: By making a film, you’re spreading this message to an even larger set of people. Do you think it’s effective in that way?

VG: People have been incredibly exciting and inspired by it, thanked me for making the movie. One said, “I walked out and felt really inspired.” Another said, “I lived in an ashram for seven years, thank you.” Only a couple of people of the hundreds who have seen it so far have been critical. It’s been overwhelmingly positive. A lot of people have said they’ve been talking about it a lot afterwards.

iW: Anyone in particular you want to target the film to?

VG: I’ve always wanted to share it with people that are yoga teachers. It’s hard to get people to think about spirituality. The idea of Kumaré and this fictional character will bring people who wouldn’t normally see a movie about spirituality to do so.

iW: And you’ve grown the beard back!

VG: I had a beard for three years, and now it feels natural. I’ve become so used to not shaving that it has not been conscious.

iW: How did being Kumaré change you?

VG: After I stopped being Kumaré, someone said “You just sound so open now.” It’s definitely made a mark in my life. The experience of doing something you believe in.

BC: You smile more, you project more happiness than you did before.

VG: I’m still equally self conscious about people talking about my personal characteristics.

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