Vikram Ghandi. That’s the most guru-like name you’re likely to ever hear, and it’s a real name. The guru part? Well, that’s different. This Ghandi was born and raised in northern New Jersey and speaks English as well as anyone. But when he wants, he can make you think he’s straight from India. In fact, that’s exactly what he did to fourteen followers for a few months in Arizona.
You don’t know this story? Have a seat. You gotta hear this one.
BTW – this is not a traditional film, so this will not be a traditional review. Also, I will refer to writer/director/actor Vikram Ghandi as “Vikram” because the name “Ghandi” obviously has another spiritual connection.
Vikram wondered about people who claimed to be spiritual leaders. He traveled to India and found a handful of people who apparently had been “appointed” or “anointed” with a special gift or deistic connection. Regardless of how often he asked them why or how they knew they were or had some kind of special connection with a supreme power, not one guru could explain anything more than they “just knew.” That got Vikram thinking – Why not pretend to be a guru? How difficult could it be? Why not start a following? What’s the worst that could happen? One caveat: if I do this, I have to reveal my true self to my followers after it’s all over. That’s the payoff.
Ghandi bought a website, rented a house, and created “Sri Kumaré,” a guru from India who was blessed with a deistic – well, now that I think about it, he never really claimed to be anything that you could pin down. He certainly presented the aura of a guru, but he chose his words carefully and often said he was “the reflection of the guru inside you.” This escape clause was necessary because it allowed him to honestly say that he never really presented himself as anything other than what his followers perceived him to be through their own expectations. That’s important.
Kumaré sits in a lotus position but does not direct yoga activities because that would be phony, and dangerous, so a certified assistant handles that. Kumaré doesn’t really give advice, but he’s an excellent listener. Actually, listening is mostly all he does. He listens, asks questions, and tends to let his followers draw their own conclusions and find their own answers. This is part of his premise – that we all have a guru inside us and all we need to do is search for it.
At the onset, it seems as if Vikram’s goal is to expose and make fun of his followers – not directly to their faces but to us, the audience. Once the experiment begins to solidify and Kumaré gets a feel for where the following is going, he branches out with what he asks his followers to do. They, in turn, also ask more of their spiritual leader. There is a genuine give-and-take, but who is giving and who is taking is not always clear. What is clear is that this is a fun film, regardless of what you believe about spirituality.
There is a genuine tension throughout because we know, and Vikram knows, that at the end of the experiment, he must reveal himself to his followers. He must stand up without the robes and accent, face the group, and admit who he is. It is like watching a bus driver lean on the gas pedal while driving towards a wall. The bus driver knows there’s a wall coming, the passengers have no clue, and we’ve got a front row seat. However, not even the driver knows if that wall is made of bricks or marshmallows.
Eventually, Kumaré plays with his followers through the power of suggestion. He tells them that he’s sending out certain mental images or feelings and wants his group to tell him if they see or feel what he is sending. Not going to spoil that for you, so you’ll have to find it on Netflix to see how that turns out.
Kumaré is almost like an 84-minute episode of Candid Camera, except that when this version of Allen Funt comes out at the end to reveal the “joke.” Naturally, I won’t tell you how the 14 followers respond except to say that the reactions are mixed and worth the wait. Some critics wrote that this topic/film should not have been feature length but perhaps a short film. I won’t argue that point as it does seem to be a one-trick pony, but the 84 minutes were all worth it. I first saw this at last year’s Ebertfest where it appeared after winning the Audience Award at the SXSW film festival, and I plan to watch it again soon.
What’s important to know before watching, and I hope you watch, is that Vikram’s goal is not in the Borat direction. It’s not theater of the absurd. His intention is not to get people to buy into silliness because they are convinced he is something special. His intention is to show people that they can accomplish great things on their own, without the approval of anyone with any kind of higher power.
Teacher gives it a B+.