Jaded, cynical and anti-religion film maker Vikram Gandhi is out to expose the commodification of spirituality in America and comes up with a brilliant yet ethically dubious social experiment: what if he were to start his own Indian religion, find some followers and capture it on film to show how gullible and foolish people can be?
With the help of an orange robe, a blingy Gandalf-worthy staff, and some feral facial hair, the transformation of New York hipster to Indian guru (known as ‘Kumaré,’ a variation of his middle name, Kumar), is complete.
Kumaré travels to Arizona with two pretty actresses who act as his assistants. He is a striking and charismatic figure who exudes charisma and serenity. He soon attracts a dozen or so followers who engage in chanting his name, devour every word he speaks (“I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion”), practice his made-up yoga and welcome him into their homes.
The plot thickens when halfway through the documentary Vikram/Kumaré starts to feel uncomfortable with what he is doing and questions his motives. He becomes fond of his devotees, feels connected to them and genuinely enjoys their company. He decides to unveil and come clean with the truth. However, he can’t go through with it. “As I sat in that circle,” he tells us later, “I realized I’d connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram.”
I won’t spoil the ending, as it really is a film worth watching. But, there are several striking aspects of the film worth briefly considering:
- Seriously, who (apart from Sash Baron Cohen), would have the gall to undertake such an unethical project and deceive people like that?! Especially vulnerable people who are seeking some kind of spiritual comfort (or is that what ‘real’ gurus do anyway?)
- Wow, is it really that easy to start your own religion and are people really that trusting and gullible?
- Vikram’s own transformation as he comes to relate to his devotees and question his own (lack of) faith. It is interesting how his new persona takes over and he comes to identify more with his made-up self than his original self.
- What happens to his devotees during the course of their relationship with him is very interesting. As his followers, they start to make positive changes in their lives, aided by his support and encouragement. One woman loses 30 kgs, another follows her dream of becoming a yoga teacher. An attorney starts to meditate everyday and vows to get out of debt. A couple in a rocky relationship re-commit to each other.
Kumaré puts this down to a concept in Buddhism – the idea of killing the Buddha. That is, you should not become fixated on a leader or guru. You must realize that he is empty, an illusion and you are seeing what you want to see.
As ‘Kumaré’ states on his Website: “The person you see before you in the mirror each morning can be very convincing, but do not let your reflection define you. You must visualize your desired self, emanate it, and become it. Take control of your destiny, and you can accomplish anything!”
That’s right. He has his own Website complete with teachings and workshop information. I don’t know whether this is a part of the prank or if Vikram is being serious and has really become Kumaré. I guess the joke is on me.