Directed by Vikram Gandhi. PG. 84 min. Aug. 3–9 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
With his colorful flowing robes and long black hair and beard, Vikram Gandhi certainly looks like a spiritual teacher from some especially mystical corner of India. Really, there’s just one detail that gives away the fact that Gandhi grew up not on the banks of the Ganges but in the suburbs of New Jersey. That would be his phony accent, which is only marginally more convincing than the one Mike Myers used in The Love Guru. Nevertheless, Gandhi has little trouble attracting acolytes in Kumaré, his film about his experiences posing as a bogus guru amid the bona-fide wisdom-seekers, yoga enthusiasts, and new-age quacks he meets during his travels in Arizona and California.
A fave at Hot Docs and SXSW last year that returns for a run at the Bloor, Kumaré was clearly conceived as the kind of prankster stunt so beloved by Sacha Baron Cohen and the Yes Men. Unsurprisingly, the early scenes of Gandhi (or Kumaré, as he’s known in his other guise) interacting with his gullible admirers is marred by the same air of cruelty and condescension that often accompanies exercises in gotcha comedy.
Yet what’s surprising is Gandhi’s eagerness to engage with more complex questions about spirituality and identity. In due course, the film’s prevailing sense of smugness is replaced by something more like empathy. Though Gandhi is not above the occasional cheap shot or self-congratulatory gesture, he’s sometimes visibly shaken by the stories of suffering that he elicits. Another element that emerges is his own desire to be more like his alter ego. “As Kumaré, I got to be happy all the time,” he notes. “That was my job.” Gandhi may have set out to teach people to be wary of gurus, but his attraction to the one he concocted points to the perennial allure of strange hairy men who promise to take our pain away.