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Kumaré (2011)

By Jacob Mertens.

I have always believed in an idea of spirituality. For me, spirituality encompasses an intimate relationship between an individual and his or her surrounding environment. Note that I do not mean the word “environment” in the traditional sense of landscape and atmosphere, but rather as an external projection of the world around us, our perceptions. We move through life as solitary creatures and we alone decide what we give significance to and how we define our purpose. At the core of Vikram Gandhi’s Kumaré, we find this lonely principle at work, as well as a confused need to maintain a spiritually enriching path. Consequently, the early scenes in the film show individuals foregoing the difficult task of personal insight, seeking, instead, the false wisdom of disingenuous Indian gurus who offer competitive sagacious sound bites.

Initially, Vikram’s incredulity of the whole sale adoption of spiritual insight is understandable and the idea of the documentarist impersonating a guru himself elicits an exciting opportunity for satire. As the film develops, though, a severe moral uncertainty of filmmaking practice rears its head. Vikram’s alter ego Kumaré manages to gather a quick following, and as he does so two unexpected events unfold. First, Vikram finds that as he forces himself to act as a guru, his efforts manifest a genuine happiness and love for his subjects. Vikram’s transformation provides the film with a measure of depth that substantiates early scenes of simple mockery, shifting the film’s intent to a tender evaluation of how to discover the guru within.

Unfortunately, Vikram also finds something unexpected in his subjects, namely that they are not caricatures primed for satire but are conscientious individuals who approach their spiritual growth with a burden of vulnerability. As Vikram’s reputation grows, new followers approach him with intensely personal details of their lives, hoping for catharsis. The fact that Vikram does not immediately reveal the ruse, but instead gathers his most devoted followers and proceeds to give them spiritual instruction is ethically questionable at best. Paradoxically, the element of ethical concern does not inhibit our ability to enjoy the film, but actually enhances the viewing experience. The film plays on audience curiosity, continually referencing a revelatory finale in which Kumaré’s deception will be laid bare. Because the film’s relationships feel authentic, and because Kumaré’s spiritual teachings provide honest insight, we cannot help but wonder how his followers will perceive their newfound spirituality once Kumaré admits his subterfuge.

The film won the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival, and proves to be both humorous and engaging. Speaking personally, I found myself thinking about the film for days, pondering the nature of spiritual insight and the positive manifestation of our intentions. In this way, Kumaré succeeds admirably, because it makes viewers question how they see the world. However, the filmmaker’s actions remain reprehensible and the film’s ending undercuts its poignancy.

In the closing moments, Kumaré postpones his planned revelation and waits months to come clean, an act of cowardice as much as anything else. When he does reveal the hoax, the scene unfolds in a suspicious way. He walks onto a stage, clean shaved and dressed in a pressed suit, and speaks to a crowd of followers without his faux Indian accent. The crowd sits quietly, and then the film abruptly cuts to thunderous applause. Afterward, a few of his followers leave, while the rest offer their renewed adulation. The film soon cuts to the stock device of documentary title cards, which inform the audience that 10 of Kumaré’s 14 intimate disciples remain in close contact with him. On that note, the film ends, and we are given a very neat resolution that minimizes the betrayal that has taken place. I cannot help but feel that Vikram has cheated his audience by not allowing the scene to develop in a natural way. Additionally, we can only extrapolate on the long term effect of his betrayal, and the film feels incomplete without that knowledge.

I cannot rightly condemn Vikram’s movie because he has created a work of art that begs for moral debate. That quality, in and of itself, justifies the questionable practice of filmmaking. However, as a human being, I feel he should have done one of the following:

  • He should have abandoned the project once he realized the inherent vulnerability of his subjects
  • He should have abandoned the film and let his teachings remain unaffected by his deception
  • Or, he should have embraced a complete commitment to honesty, resisting the urge to force a resolution on a morally complicated and ambiguous set of circumstances

Instead, Vikram chooses to make a movie that downplays his culpability. In fact, the only time he truly admits to his audience what he has done is when he includes a quote from a follower which states that he agrees with the content of Kumaré’s teachings but is unsure of his methods of instruction. When I read that, I felt my impression of the movie crystallize. Sadly, the sentiment is relegated to a title card tacked on to the end of the film.

Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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