Code Orange for gullible masses
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 7, 2012
Can a religious placebo prove as effective as an actual religion? That’s the question posed by “Kumare,” a provocative documentary by a filmmaker whose impersonation of an Indian guru -- an initially larky attempt to poke fun at spiritualist charlatans and their credulous followers -- leads to results that surprise both him and his New Age “flock.”
The provocateur is Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey-born, New York-based director of commercials and music videos who decided to play on his exotic appearance -- growing his black hair and beard long, dressing in an orange costume, moving to Phoenix and mimicking the thick accent of his Indian grandmother -- to create the character of a wise man, Sri Kumare.
The name, a nonsense word, is said to mean “divine child,” but the most divine thing about Kumare (and the movie of the same name) is the comedy Gandhi mines, at least for a little while, out of the gullible nature of those who fall under his sway.
“There’s nothing phony about him,” gushes Greg, a former drug abuser. Like the filmmaker’s other on-camera marks -- each of whom agreed to be filmed for what they presumably thought was a traditional documentary -- he is identified only by first name. In many ways, the setup is just like the one in “Borat.”
One particularly funny sequence features Gandhi, as Kumare, consulting with an “acoustic theologist,” who is shown blowing a didgeridoo all over Gandhi’s body and then massaging Gandhi’s scalp with what I can only imagine is an orbital car buffer. In another episode, Kumare visits the cult leader known as Gabriel of Urantia, who was featured several years ago in an unflattering “Dateline” expose.
It’s good stuff, if a little mean.
Okay, really mean. It seems snarky for Gandhi to spend as much time spoofing those seeking spiritual guidance as he does mocking the mountebanks who are leading them down the primrose path. Although the latter is his stated goal, at times Gandhi seems more interested in humiliating the seekers than the snakes. Toward the end of the film, when he is contemplating exactly how he is going to reveal his charade to the people he has been stringing along, Gandhi looks into the camera and says, with more than a touch of shame, “I am a big liar who has fooled you to make you feel like an idiot.”
Of course, the big reveal of Kumare as Gandhi is the film’s payoff. But how it all goes down involves a pretty sweet twist.
That’s because, at some point in this experiment, as Gandhi calls it, the filmmaker has a change of heart. Instead of being content to merely laugh at those who have come to believe in him, he decides to help them.
See, all along, Kumare has been dropping hints to his followers that he’s a fake. Like Chance the gardener in “Being There,” he utters such banalities as “all this is not real,” which is taken as sage advice. Most seem to interpret it as a form of the philosophy that life is an illusion; they nod as if it’s the most profound thing they’ve ever heard.
But then Gandhi hits upon something rather profound -- and startlingly moving. Dubbing it the “mirror teaching,” he tries to convince his most devout followers, several of whom are starting to see positive results in their lives, that it is they who have the power to transform things, not he.
What started as a long, elaborate joke becomes a journey, both for Gandhi’s students and for the filmmaker himself. It’s a journey that also carries the film’s audience to a place that is completely unexpected. It’s a trip that’s deeply, even startlingly rewarding, for seekers and skeptics alike.
Contains brief obscenity.