Two years ago, Brooklyn filmmaker Vikram Gandhi grew out his hair and beard, adopted a fake Indian accent and became Sri Kumare, an Eastern guru espousing his invented “path of the Mirror” to followers in Phoenix.
At the South by Southwest festival last weekend, Gandhi told a crowd of digital artists how he pulled off “the biggest lie I ever told and the greatest truth I’ve ever known.” He documented his subterfuge in the film “Kumare,” scheduled to be released this summer.
The film is at times nerve-wracking and hilarious as it makes the viewer an accomplice to Gandhi as he lies to innocents seeking truth and guidance from a make-believe guru.
It’s a thoroughly modern story, possible in part because of the illusions of the Internet. As a first-generation American born to religious Hindu parents in the late 1970s New Jersey, Gandhi found himself documenting gurus in an attempt to make sense of why the West was embracing the very religion he wanted to escape.
During the making of the film, as a social experiment, he created a Web site and a YouTube video in which he posed as an make-believe guru. As Gandhi expanded his experiment to interact with people in real life as Kumare, those digital tracks were enough evidence for people to buy into Gandhi’s guise.
Although most people don’t create entirely new personas online, identity is masked and altered in almost every online interaction to some degree. The idea of grappling with digital identity is at the core of Gandhi’s film, which explores the line between the invented and true self and even calls into question if such a line exists.
The Internet has allowed people greater transparency to find the truth about other people, Gandhi said over a drink in Austin, but it also allows people to mask reality and re-create it in an image of their own making. In his case, he wanted to find a guru willing to admit there was no truth in gurus. When he couldn’t find one, he created one in himself.
According to Gandhi, it was in that fiction that he found real truth. As Kumare, “I would stare in someone’s eyes and say, ‘I see such beauty in you,’ and I did. . . . If I walked up to someone in Union Square and tried that, they would call me crazy.”
Gandhi might have been lying to his devotees about who he really was, but he quickly realized “the joke was on me.” The identity he adopted was actually the man he wished he could be.
His experience online was far from unique. He points to avatars, the small photographs next to people’s Facebook statuses and Twitter updates. The word comes from the Hindu religion and represents the personality a god takes when he or she descends to earth.
Gandhi’s experience as Kumare is played out a million times a day on the Internet. You can be who you want to be online — be it horribly abusive in a comment stream or living an ideal pieced together in a carefully curated Facebook account.
For all the talk about higher truth, Gandhi lied to his followers. But so as not ruin the movie, I can’t say how they reacted, except that he still has them.
But even two years after Gandhi unmasked himself, it’s evident he hasn’t given up the ghost of Kumare. In an e-mail the day after our drink, he wrote, “I wish I could be Kumare all the time.”
Kumare still exists on the Web site Gandhi first created, which real people might still stumble across, perhaps to find truth in the fictional character’s invented reality.