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Kumaré (2011)


Kumaré is a divisive film; you will admire the documentarian’s experiment, think he is a morally-bankrupted swine, or at least consider him a cruel(er) version of Sacha Baron Cohen. Director Vikram Gandhi illuminates some interesting questions about the post-New Age, yoga and Eastern-obsessed American middle-class. Why has there been such a large movement toward a Westernized Indian philosophy; what do people get out of it? Larger questions are at work here as well, those continuing to plague humanity since the Enlightenment: how do we deal with those who claimed to be touched by deities, who bring us spiritual comfort, but are shown to be false prophets?

Gandhi begins with a description of his average American upbringing as the son of Indian immigrants, and his attempted indoctrination into Hinduism by his family. In adulthood, he became fascinated with new trends in the US based on Eastern culture and mysticism, especially the enormous popularity of yoga. After traveling to India and around the states meeting with several gurus and yogis, Vikram decides to embark on an experimental journey to become one himself and see if he can garner disciples. He travels to Arizona with his Grandmother’s accent and two followers in tow (a PR person and a yoga instructor), and slowly builds up a reputation as an insightful, humorous, and powerful teacher.

With such a focus on questions of religion and spirituality, one point which gets left out of both Gandhi’s and critics’ discussion of the film is the representation of cynicism, irony, and rejection of religion common amongst Gen Xers and postmodern culture more generally. It’s not merely a rejection, but dogmatic belief that those who desperately seek out spirituality are foolish and unintelligent. A latent smugness permeates Vikram’s premise and approach to his experiment, a nod and a wink to his audience at how silly these “students” are. It is this initial attitude which distracts from the ending message of the film, and his personal “enlightenment.” While Gandhi expresses some doubt and regret at his own methods and actions, this does not excuse the previous hour’s worth of scoffing at those who are seeking out relief from personal misery, more control over their own lives, and a greater sense of connectedness in a world increasingly devoted of real human contact.

Somehow, the fact that he is consciously inauthentic is what sets Kumaré apart from other false profits. This is merely an experiment for him, so he begins to feel guilt, which turns to compassion and a sense of obligation to actually help the people he has attracted. One of the faults of the documentary is that it doesn’t contain scenes of Vikram out of character, discussing the progress of the experiment with his fellow partners in crime. All we’re left with is an empty voice-over, filled with not-so-insightful descriptions of the events onscreen.

If someone helps you and has a positive impact on your life, does it matter who that person is, what their intentions are, and if they are “authentic” or not? Who decides if a yogi/guru/teacher/preacher/prophet is credible, experienced, and enlightened enough to be a spiritual leader? Whether it enrages you, makes you laugh, or just makes you think, Kumaré is good to watch with friends and family to spark great discussions on religion, spirituality, gullibility, and personal journeys.


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