(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on September 7, 2012.)
Writing about a documentary where the documentarian loses objectivity due to learning deep truths about himself is difficult. How do you pass judgment on one’s own learning experience that almost negates the proposed experiment? Kumaré is the story about a man who seeks to expose a needless addiction to religion and our reverence of human leaders by becoming a holy man himself; if anyone can simply pick up the reins of a holy man, why can’t he? However, when the line between sociological experiment and actual life gets blurred, interesting things start to happen, and that’s where Kumaré’s truth lies. It’s a very strange, yet enlightening film about true self-discovery, and although the method may not be the best, the result needs to be seen to be believed.
Kumaré takes a dangerous approach to prove its point: a New Jersey-born Indian-American takes on the physical appearance and sound of a Hindu guru and proceeds to teach made-up “truths”. At first, Kumaré is a rollicking comedy, as we see Gandhi start shaping the Kumaré persona. Basing his voice on his grandmother and growing his hair out, he becomes a proficient yoga master and holy man, traveling throughout India and the United States to inform and sculpt his own brand of truth. Eventually, he starts giving classes to a host of followers, many who are so taken with Kumaré and his simplicity. He wants neither money nor fame; he only wants to listen and advise. His fake yoga positions and fabricated life teachings take on a life of their own, leaving him with a tough decision: does he reveal his deception, or does he continue actively trying to help?
In today’s arrest/lawsuit-happy society, an approach like Gandhi’s could bear disastrous results; being hoodwinked is not something that people take lightly. Yet Kumaré’s gentle, simple nature wins out, even though his methods are quite laughable. The hijinks with which Gandhi first engages his disciples are audacious and funny, especially when the utter absurdity of his practices is shown. His choice of symbol is rather cheeky, and it’s with that same cheekiness he greets this task – from learning from self-appointed cult “leaders” to his first interactions with his followers. However, midway through Kumaré, it’s evident that Gandhi actually has started to care and help them, all the while keeping up the façade of a wise master with a weird affinity for drawing questionable symbols on his followers’ foreheads.
Watching Kumaré was an odd exercise. The material is treated with irreverence and humor, with laughs a-plenty for the first part of it; this gives way to a serious film about truth, our true selves, and how we all have the power within us to change without looking to figureheads. Gandhi’s final revelation may not sit well with everyone, but when you internalize that it’s his revelation – not yours – you may find yourself applauding this film. The method may be fraught with peril and it may not be an objective documentary, but Kumaré is a film that may make you think about a thing or two as you leave it behind.