Hot Docs 2011: ‘Kumaré’

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Directed by Vikram Gandhi

2011, USA, 84 mins.

After watching Kumaré, an old aphorism comes to mind: the best way to learn is to teach. When Vikram Gandhi set out to teach people that gurus and other religious teachers are unnecessary by growing out his hair and beard, putting on an exaggerated Indian accent, and transforming into a guru character called Kumaré, he probably did not expect that he too would learn something about spirituality. When he founded a fake religious movement, he probably did not expect that he would end up actually helping people. And while he had always planned to reveal his deception, he probably did not anticipate the magnitude of his own moral crisis.

This film is not Borat. While Borat was making a satirical statement at the expense of the most ridiculous people Sasha Baron Cohen could find, Gandhi is trying, perhaps inexpertly, to make a serious point to his disciples. The contradiction of deceiving them and treating them respectfully is a constant source of tension in the film. While New Age spiritualism is dealt with a sense of playfulness, and while Kumaré interacts with some people that are candidates for Pen & Teller’s Bullshit!, the majority of Kumaré’s disciples are actually decent, fairly average people. One is a lawyer for death row inmates. One is a medical student. Another is a retired man just struggling with the next part of his life. Kumaré’s tongue-in-cheek teaching – that all gurus, especially Kumaré himself, are illusions and therefore unnecessary – seem to help them. This contributes heavily to a tense final thirty minutes of the film, in which Gandhi struggles with how to reveal his true self to his disciples without hurting them.

At the heart of this film are serious moral conundrums. How can one judge the authenticity of religious teachers? Do we need religious teachers at all? How can we deal with the central irony of this film – that it took a guru to teach the folly of following gurus? And how can we deal with the central dilemma of this film – can truth come from a lie? These are questions that the film cannot answer. It offers the best evidence that it can, and Vikram narrates his experience and rationale along the way, but these are ultimately things left up to the audience – which this film relentlessly divides. Some dislike Gandhi’s opinion of religious teachers. Even more dislike his deception.

For me to pass critical judgment on a film based on my own moral judgement of Gandhi would be both selfish and stupid. This is a job that belongs to an audience. The best I can tell you is that this documentary has an abundance of food for thought.

Dave Robson

Hot Docs runs from April 28th through May 8th.

Visit the official website for the festival.


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