B+ Religious documentary

  • Directed by Vikram Gandhi

Can a religious hoax improve people’s lives? That wasn’t the question New Jersey-born Vikram Gandhi planned to answer in his autobiographical documentary, but it soon became the central thesis of his story. And, at least if we take Gandhi’s version of events at face value, the answer is yes.

As a young man, Gandhi rejected the Hindu faith of his parents (as far as I know, he is not related to the famous Mahatma). But the concept of gurus fascinated him, and raised his skepticism. Both in America and India, these “holy” men appeared to be primarily after money, power, or sex.

Then he got an idea. He studied yoga, let his hair and beard grow, imitatedkumare his grandmother’s accent, and moved to Phoenix with a new identity: a holy man named Sri Kumaré. He had two accomplices–a yoga teacher and a marketing expert.

And he acquired a modest following of 14 people. He probably didn’t want more; too much attention and someone would have blown his cover. Besides, this crowd was small enough for him to realize a one-on-one relationship with each of them.

He immediately finds himself over his head. His very first follower complains of job-related stress. When he asks about her work, she tells him that she’s a lawyer representing people on death row. In other words, her clients are broke, usually evil, and about to be murdered by the state. He’s speechless, but he’s required to offer comfort. Others are in bad marriages, overweight, or depressed. Somehow, this charlatan is supposed to give them sage wisdom. That Gandhi recognizes this dilemma and feels guilty about it speaks well of him.

As he goes along, listening to people and encouraging them to find their inner strength, he does indeed help them. Starting as a fake guru, he becomes the real thing.

But he’s living a lie and he knows it. He loves these people and they love him. By his own admittance, he’s had closer human relationships as Kumaré then he ever had as Vikram Gandhi, and that only makes things worse. He always intended to reveal his secret identity, but emotional intimacy makes it harder.

Gandhi also seems reluctant to reveal everything to his film audience, and that’s the movie’s biggest problem. With one very brief exception, neither Gandhi nor anyone else ever mentions the presence of cameras, despite the fact that everyone must have been aware of their presence. How did he explain to his followers that he was directing a documentary about them all?

Another question: When Gandhi and his accomplices move to Phoenix, they get a very nice house with a large swimming pool. Where did the money come from? Certainly not his followers; he didn’t have any, yet.

And these doubts lead to a bigger one: Did Gandhi edit the film to present himself in the best light? We get to know several followers whose lives were improved by their encounter with this conman. Were there others who felt nothing but conned?

Gandhi may not have been entirely honest about his dishonesty, but he succeeded in making an entertaining and thought-provoking documentary. Religion, after all, is not about divine truth, but ritual, care, and compassion. The fictional Kumaré brought those to at least some of his very real followers.