Kumare is an Illusion, and Illusion is Truth
After growing up in the U.S. as part of a highly traditional Indian family, and later, graduating from college with a degree in religion, Vikram Gandhi’s faith was wavering. Hoping to find something of substance that he could believe in, he set off for India with a camera and an open mind, but every guru he came in contact with seemed to be merely a false savant looking to bag a buck with nothing more than confidence and an abundance of hair coming from all over. What he found most troubling was that through their blatant abuse of power via instruction, these so called holy men each had devout followings. This sparked an idea. What if Vikram Gandhi, a bright young man of Indian descent, thoroughly trained in the traditions of yoga, grew out his hair and beard, adopted his grandmother’s accent, and became a bullshit philosopher with a mission to prove the guru irrelevant? Enter Kumare.
After developing a loose curriculum, the newly created character, who at first seems a variant of Borat, quickly finds that his initial bogus teachings not only attract willing followers, but can deeply connect with them at levels not found in his normal life as Vikram. Even professional yogis and other spiritual healers are completely bamboozled by his act. As his reputation grows, his lessons evolve into a straightforward message – illusion yields truth – yet his students never follow the clues back to Vikram himself. Instead, his altered personality brings them in closer.
Each of his students eventually confide in Kumare, revealing surprisingly intimate stories of personal turmoil. A middle aged man discloses that just a few years before he was forced to choose between his wife or a crack pipe. One woman revealed her struggles as a single mother of four dealing with extreme self esteem issues. Another, an accomplished lawyer who’s case load is wholly inmates on death row, speaks about the emotional stresses of her job. Each comes to Kumare for clarity and self improvement. Paired with meditative yoga, his advice is always the same – each of them have strength within, and they do not need a guru to overcome their weaknesses. When it comes time for his big reveal that he is not who he seems to be, the impact left on his followers comes full circle in surprisingly powerful, meaningful ways. Gandhi’s film did not start as the farce it evolved into, but not even he could have guessed how deeply moving his act would come to affect these people.
As the subject of his own film, neither Vikram or his followers ever acknowledge the ever present camera (other than the occasional subject asked specifically about their unknowingly hilarious feelings on Kumare). Mostly, we are merely observers of a developing cultish group wanting nothing more than to improve their lives. Looking back at his experience, Vikram narrates, interjecting his thoughts as events play out on screen. Thanks to a wonderful editing job by Adam Barton and Nathan Russell, Kumare’s character arch feels incredibly natural despite a major transformation in tone that mirrors Vikram’s feelings over the course of the film. What at first seems a mocking poke at religious followers beautifully metamorphoses into a deep commentary on the importance of art and inner strength. Even Vikram himself finds himself conflicted about his ability to give guidance to the people who confide in him, but at the end of Kumare’s transformative journey, he himself learns the power of deceptive performance art and the ability to do selfless good in a world self obsessed. What Kumare becomes is an astounding test of art’s ability to transcend fiction in order to find momentous truths. The lesson? Become a believer.