Vikram Gandhi, the director, narrator, and star of Kumaré, is an unmystical New Jersey-born Indian-American who reinvents himself as the title character, a swami from the Himalayas, for the sake of his film. He grows out his hair and beard, puts on bright orange robes and beads, carries a staff, and starts spouting invented wisdom with a heavy accent he explains is an imitation of his grandmother’s—and people are wincingly eager to buy it.
Like Denmark’s The Red Chapel, Kumaré is a documentary about an elaborate stunt that doesn’t go as planned because the perpetrators start feeling lousy about everyone they’re lying to. For Gandhi, the performance is intended to expose the hollowness behind so many self-appointed New Age and pseudo-eastern gurus. While his film skims over the vast topic of religion-divorced spirituality, particularly as attached to yoga, with a calculated superficiality, Gandhi’s growing guilt about (and attachment to) the followers who respond to his teachings does feel excruciatingly sincere.
Gandhi hires two pretty assistants and sets up shop in Phoenix, Arizona, where he instructs students in made-up yoga moves—one involves panting like a dog, another’s a basic air-guitar windmill—and starts acquiring acolytes who don’t see them as at all ridiculous. The potential meanness of this scenario—he convinces a guy to bow at an altar with a photo of Osama bin Laden, just to see if he can—is mitigated by the very real problems many of Kumaré’s fans are struggling with. One man is a crack addict, another deeply lonely now that her children are grown. And Gandhi does try to tie Kumaré’s teachings to his fundamental falseness by having him talk about being a mirror and an act, just a regular guy: “I am the biggest faker that I know. I fake so much, I forget who I was before,” he says.
What Kumaré uncovers may not be that profound—that many people are hungry for meaning and a sympathetic ear, whether provided by an established religion or a made-up one—but there’s something to the humbling that Gandhi receives when he realizes how much his counterfeit yogi is affecting people. But even at a slim 84 minutes, that arc is padded out with side explorations of acoustic therapy and alien-abduction communes that dilute the film’s focus and only make it seem like the filmmaker’s aware there just isn’t much there there.