A Serious Joke: A review of "Kumare"

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Vikram Gandhi likens his new genre-bending documentary  Kumaré  to a Zen koan. Followed by a film crew, Gandhi grows out his hair and beard, dons an accent, and becomes a “fake guru” he calls Kumaré. Vikram then has his character visit suburban Arizona. The aim isn’t just to trick people, but to teach people who think they need a guru that all spiritual leaders are actually illusions — and the only real guru is within. 

“The reason for making the film was in a way propaganda — exposing something that seems real to me and true,” Gandhi says now, as the film continues to open in theaters around the U.S.

But it’s not propaganda without humor. “I didn’t want to say it isn’t a joke,” Gandhi says. “It is a joke. It’s just a serious joke. It’s not a movie that’s just a spiritual quest, it’s also a skeptic’s quest.”

Gandhi’s skepticism is justified: today, yoga is not just a discipline but also a $5 billion-a-year industry. And the gurus Gandhi encounters at the beginning of his film are preoccupied with seducing young women, deriving relevance from a historical tradition from the other side of the world, and “out-guru(ing) one another.”

But the higher the pedestal these gurus put themselves on, the farther they get from the one anchor of spiritual experience Gandhi knows to be true and authentic — his tiny, unassuming grandmother, who performs Hindu morning rituals on the kitchen floor and to whom the film is dedicated.

Kumaréis a deceptively sweet film, executed to elicit genuine sympathy and compassion for its core cast of characters, and to bring the viewer on an entertaining and suspenseful ride. But it does pull the rug out from under gurus and students who believe in supernatural powers or that a guru’s supposed closeness to God give him a pass on bad behavior and poor intentions.

Kumaréis also at times hilarious, and at other times uncomfortable,

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to watch. (Thus, the many comparisons toBorat. ) Kumaré’s “teachings” are so explicit about the inauthenticity of the whole premise of a guru, and his actions are sometimes so outrageous that you expect the whole thing could fall apart at any moment.

It doesn’t, of course, and the entire Kumaré experiment leads up to a final teaching called “The Great Unveiling.” By that point, you actually feel sympathetic towards Kumaré’s students — even if they do look ridiculous with a tika in the shape of a penis painted on their foreheads — and anticipate the Great Unveiling with an odd mix of morbid fascination and naive hope.

Gandhi says that most of the response toKumaréhas been positive and he’s been thrilled by the above-and-beyond kind of support it’s gotten in New York’s yoga circles — the very community he’s critiquing and poking fun at.

Plenty of folks showing up to screenings have been hip New Yorkers in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who are yoga-studio regulars. And their feedback has touched mostly on how timely this film is, coming on the heels of negative revelations about John Friend, founder and leader of the Anusara yoga community.

But Gandhi says the biggest responses he’s gotten at screenings have been from Baby Boomers. “They’re the most appreciative, kind of over the top. People say “I lived with this guru for years and this movie speaks to the time in my life that I was really confused.””

And that’s part of the gift ofKumaré . It allows viewers to ride the rollercoaster of expectation and disappointment in an idealized spiritual leader, except in a way that’s kinder, gentler and more removed than how it plays out in real life. With a fun and upbeat soundtrack of tunes from the 70s by Ananda Shankar,Kumaréis delightful, stirring compassion as well as deep questions.

Kumaréwill continue to play in theaters through the fall, until it’s released on DVD and on Netflix in November.

Category: Report

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