Film Review: Vikram Gandhi’s Kumaré, The True Story of a False Prophet
“The Spiritual Placebo Effect” is how New Jersey filmmaker Vikram Gandhi described the premise of the social experiment featured in his 2011 documentary, Kumaré. As he put it in an article for the Huffington Post, “Can a fake religion and religious leader have the same effect as a real one? If the facts are not real, does it make the experience any less real?” The question prompts us to reconsider the authority we assign to guru figures.
As a one-time student of religion and a lapsed Hindu, Gandhi was well equipped for his experiment. The film follows his invented persona, Kumaré, as he moves to Phoenix, Arizona with a piecemeal cosmology, saffron robes, several months’ hair and beard growth, and an accent copped from his grandmother.
Without much trouble, Kumaré accumulates a group of 14 disciples. His followers include an exhausted death-row defense attorney, a yoga instructor, a recovered drug addict, and a meek fellow whose primary social contact is chatting up free-sample attendants at grocery stores.
The project soon encounters a big question: What happens when a fake guru begins to form real relationships with his followers? When people start coming to Kumaré with problems like failing marriages, addiction, unemployment, and loneliness, the stakes become soberingly real in a hurry. The novice guru Gandhi has to move deftly to remain supportive while avoiding spiritual malpractice.
Gandhi soon finds genuine compassion for the members of his group, who become friends as much as followers. Their relationships yield a number of endearing moments, which include a childlike scuba-diving visualization on the death-row lawyer’s living room floor. These moments give the film a big heart and much of its interest.
But even as he forms bonds with the members of his circle, Gandhi realizes that everything increasingly depends on getting them to grasp the only real message Kumaré ever had: You are the only guru you need. When he finally drops his illusion, this lesson will make the difference between an enlightening experience and a messy betrayal.
First-time viewers, eager to see how Gandhi will traverse the high wire he has created, are likely to focus on the film’s plot.. Later viewings provide more opportunity to reflect on the nuances of the subjects’ relationships and on the project’s humanity. In the end, Gandhi’s social experiment uses benevolent deception as a vehicle for asking important questions and arriving at answers that inspire and empower – at least for some.