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Kumaré: Tales of a Phony Guru

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I rarely go to see a movie twice, but after watching Kumaré, I went back to see it again the next day. Directed by Vikram Gandhi, the film is hilarious and profound, playful and edgy. A bright, indie film maker conducts an experiment: putting on the orange robes of a guru, he sets out to see if people might find the same inner peace and nourishment from a made-up religion as they do from a "real one."

Kurt Vonnegut played with this concept in Cat's Cradle, as do Trey Parker and Matt Stone in The Book of Mormon, which begins a national tour in Denver on Aug. 14, for which tickets sold out in hours. I suspect one reason that Mormon has struck a nerve is that it reveals, under the ribald comedy, a truth that is the central point of Kumaré: religious practices can be made to look absurd, but they can act as a placebo to make people feel happy and inspired.

Vikram Gandhi was born in New Jersey to parents from India, who forced him to attend Hindu rituals and pray to gods that included a flying monkey and an elephant with a man's body. He saw it all as embarrassing claptrap that "somebody made up" long ago. He studied religion at Columbia University, which made him more of a skeptic. But at the very time he was trying to throw off his Hindu heritage, he realized that millions of Americans were embracing it. He started making a documentary about yoga, concluding that the gurus he filmed were largely "making stuff up." He traveled to India, where he found the swamis "just as phony as those I met in America."

He came up with an idea: What if he pretended to be a guru and made a film about it? Would people start following him or see through it?

Vikram grows a beard and long hair, wraps some orange cloth around him and begins walking barefoot and carrying a staff with a giant Om symbol. Then all he has to do, he says, is "imitate my grandmother's voice" -- a sing-song Indian accent.

It begins as a prank. He hires two actresses to play his devoted support team and flies to Phoenix with a three-man film crew. He's a beautiful man, tall and buff, and people flock around him, excited to meet "a genuine guru." He makes up ridiculous yoga postures, invents chants that are gibberish and a text he calls the Kumaré Sutra. Soon he has a room full of people doing the fake yoga poses and chanting, "Oooo-ay, oooo-ay," with such sincerity and determination that Vikram is taken aback.

How far can he push this? He invents a meditation he calls the "Blue Light," asking his disciples to feel the blue light of pure love inside them and shoot it out.

Whatever he says, people listen with wide-eyed reverence. One of his disciples, a yoga teacher herself, starts teaching the Blue Light to her students.

The same phenomenon occurs in the Book of Mormon. Arnold, the fat, mentally-challenged missionary, starts making up Mormon history because he can't remember the original. When the natives in Uganda ask questions, he invents crazy stories including one about a Mormon leader who has sex with a frog. (Remember Leda and the Swan?) This delights and awes the Ugandans. The other missionaries who're preaching by the book fail to convert a single soul, but Arnold signs up the whole village.

Kumaré is smarter and cannier. He tells everyone the truth, again and again: "I am not who you think I am. What you see is an illusion." The students smile and nod, like, wow, this guy is the real deal.

Unlike some spiritual teachers, he doesn't take money or have sex with students, even when women make it clear they're ripe for plucking. But he does give them attention, heaps of it, looking in their eyes and listening with empathy as they tell him their most intimate struggles.

Then he says something trite and they seem transfigured, thanking him and beaming. An obese woman loses 70 pounds, and a couple on the verge of splitting up come back together in the glow of his pure blue light.

Kumaré acquires an inner circle of 14 devotees. In interviews, one woman says to the camera, "He's changed my DNA," and a man says, "There's nothing phony about him."

I can only imagine the exulting of the crew when they get that remark on film. Nothing phony about him.

Then a strange thing happens. Halfway through the shoot, Vikram says, "I started to feel the Blue Light." And herein lies the genius of the movie. The transformation of Vikram Gandhi the filmmaker -- from making fun of his followers to feeling love for them -- is far more interesting than the conversion of his disciples. Being Kumaré is no longer a farce, a game, and that makes Vikram sweat. How can he tell these trusting souls who he really is and what kind of film he's making? They look at him with such love. He knows he won't have a movie if he doesn't show the unveiling of Kumaré and the response of his disciples, but he's frightened of how they'll react. Will they get angry, even violent, feel ashamed of being gulled and turn on him? Will they sue him?

He rehearses what he'll say and sets a date for the unveiling. Gathering his disciples around the swimming pool of his rented home, he looks at their eager faces and says, "What we're unveiling today is our true selves." But he can't do it. "As I sat in that circle," he explains later, "I realized I'd connected more deeply with people as Kumaré than I ever had as Vikram."

I don't want to spoil the ending for you. Go and see what happens.

What I will tell you is how it works in the Book of Mormon. The unveiling is done not by Arnold but by his superiors. A delegation of Mormons arrive from Utah to congratulate Arnold on his success. They watch his converts act out what they think is the Book of Mormon, and they're horrified. That's not the real story, they cry, denouncing Arnold as a false prophet. The female star, a Ugandan woman who fell for Arnold and dreamed of going to "Salt Lake Cit-eee," is shocked and disillusioned. Then another native reminds her that the story Arnold told was a "met-a-for," and anyway, if it makes you feel good and gives you hope, what's wrong with that?

What Kumaré demonstrates is how strongly people yearn for wholeness, connection and love. Humans have an innate capacity for self-transformation, or as Kumaré tells people, "The guru is inside you." Sometimes they just need a trigger, a placebo. I'd guess that anyone who gave people as much attention and empathy as Kumaré did could prompt a change in them.

The film opens with a quote from an Anglican priest: "Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience." Or as a spiritual teacher once told me, "Fake it till you make it."

If I close my eyes right now, I can create the feeling of love inside me and push it out my arms. Am I fooling myself? Do I care?

As long as no harm is committed, what does it matter, as the other Gandhi said, "by what name we call God in our homes?" Christ, Allah, or as this play and film suggest, Arnold or Kumaré?

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please leave a comment.

NOTE: Some viewers have been troubled by Vikram's ethics -- using false pretenses to get people to sign releases, then showing them as being fooled. This did not disturb me much, because everyone saw the cameras rolling when they signed on. In addition, there's a long, respected tradition of this technique in prose, TV and films -- people disguising themselves to obtain a story or learn something. Works such as Black Like Me, Candid Camera, Borat and Gentlemen's Agreement come to mind. But it's a slippery slope. What do you think?

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For more info on Kumaré and to see where it's playing, CLICK HERE.