Kumaré has a premise that could’ve been the launching point for one of Sascha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles’s satirical outrages. Frustrated with the hypocrisy and elaborate pageantry of the rituals associated with various religions, director Vikram Gandhi, a lapsed Hindu raised in New Jersey, grew his hair and his beard out and moved to Arizona to position himself as Sri Kumaré, a guru from a fictional town in India. Gandhi hired a publicist to set up classes in various malls and festivals, and a yoga instructor to teach him a variety of techniques, and in a matter of months he’d attracted a devoted group of followers who accepted his word as scripture.
Gandhi’s intent isn’t subtle, as he tells us directly that he found most of the so-called enlightened ones he encountered before undertaking this project to be self-serving shams who take up the business of religion for the money, influence, and sexual adulation. (One guru Gandhi encounters, an older American resembling Jerry Garcia who thinks nothing of using his teachings to sleep with 20-year-old girls, could probably justify a documentary of his own.) Hei intends to show audiences that gurus, with their meaningless and often contradictory non-answers, are basically actors who are accorded a reverence that’s absurdly disproportionate to their performance. Kumaré teaches his followers to “embrace an illusion for the ultimate truth about themselves,” which is a canny way of hiding his own fraud out in the open. Kumaré baldly tells his students, in a sing-songy accent that deliberately plays to the cliché of the Indian as all-knowing mystic, that they don’t need him, as the answers to their frustrations lie within themselves—a sentiment that’s both a parody of self-help teachings as well as a truth so obvious as to be nearly impossible for many to grasp.
Indirectly, Gandhi, at least initially, is asserting that the popularity of various religious figures can be ascribed to the often imperceptible human suspicion that the complex riddles of life aren’t really so complex; we add the complexity ourselves out of self-loathing and existential terror. Kumaré‘s followers are predictably damaged lost souls who are strung out from the stress of their jobs or recovering from various addictions or grappling with loneliness; in other words, they’re plagued by the problems that hound mankind daily and that cause them to hope for a higher meaning that justifies the pain and the monotony and the uncertainty.
In the beginning, Gandhi’s contempt for both the hucksters and the fools who eagerly fall for them is palpable, culminating in an amusingly nasty sight gag involving a picture of Osama Bin Ladin. But Kumaré takes a turn that’s legitimately shocking. By fashioning himself randomly as Kumaré, Gandhi embodies the platitude of being able to be whoever you wish, which frees him of certain prejudices and assumptions and allows him to authentically give his devotees the direction and reassurance they desperately crave. The rituals, which are primarily nonsense chants about a “blue light within” wedded to common yoga moves, are a pretext that frees his devotees from their self-consciousness, inspiring them to risk rejection in the pursuit of what they want. The film offers the exhilaration of a filmmaker, partially by accident, discovering that the terminally unhappy he was initially inclined to ridicule simply need, like most everyone, to be unconditionally believed in.