Friday, January 27, 2017
What is real? Who are you? What do you need to become whomever it is you wish to be? Never have these heady questions been so thoroughly explored in a movie as they are in the 2011 documentary Kumare. New York born and New Jersey bred director Vikram Gandhi set out to look at spiritual leaders, professing a lifelong skepticism of anyone who claims to be more holy or more enlightened than anyone else. He was raised strictly Hindu, studied religion in college, but it never clicked with him. Among other things, there was always the resistance to leaders. Gandhi ultimately decided to take on this subject by becoming a guru himself. So he grew out his hair and beard, put on flowing robes, began carrying a walking staff with the Om symbol on it, and affected an Indian accent inspired by his grandmother. All with the idea of “let’s see what happens”. Will people follow this nonsense just because it comes from an exotic looking man with an accent? The social experiment could’ve gone terribly wrong, and the movie as well. But as Vikram says, it ended up being about “the biggest lie I ever told, and the greatest truth I ever discovered.”
He set up shop in the Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ areas, gained followers in yoga communities by spouting philosophy of real and gibberish words and yoga moves. He had practiced yoga for years himself, so his moves looked authentic. He led a “blue light meditation” meant to connect everyone through their blue light. But it was nonsense. He would preach to his followers that they, not he, had the answers. He repeatedly told them he was not who he seemed to be. "I am the biggest faker I know,” he says to them at one point. But people just dismiss that as guru Kumare's deep humility and allow their spiritual hunger to guide them back over and over again to Kumare and his teachings.
This may sound like the seeds of a prank movie, something Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up to put next to his Borat and Bruno characters. But Kumare is much deeper and more ambitious (and good hearted) than that. Kumare was started as a trick, but his teachings became a sort of "you already have all the answers" or "salvation lies within" kind of teaching that many self-help teachers and even religions preach. “You are the guru” he repeatedly tells them. Are we not all our own gurus?
So the movie then starts to consider the question of: if you achieve some amount of enlightenment from working with a fake teacher, is that enlightenment fake? The teacher didn't achieve it; the enlightenment was your own. Should you feel duped because you reached a place of higher truth for yourself in a different way than you thought you did?
That may make this movie sound like some highly intellectual exploration of these ideas, a dry and possibly unengaging scholarly exercise, but that's not the movie that Vikram Gandhi made, nor even the character that Kumare is. Kumare is very funny, and the movie is as well. I never felt it looking down on these people who come to Kumare for spiritual growth. Instead it looks at them and says, "wow, people are so hungry for connection and self improvement that they're willing to listen intently to a man who's telling them that he doesn't have the answers and is a fake."
The people open up to Kumare about their troubled relationships and childhoods and see the caring and loving eyes putting their full attention on them. That would be enough for any of us. How often do you feel like you truly have someone's 100% attention focused directly on you and lovingly listening to your every word? That could make being around Kumare intoxicating.
And this is where Vikram Gandhi starts having some serious internal conflict. He never meant to make a fool of anyone; he was really just conducting an experiment. But he’s actually making a difference in people’s lives, a real, tangible, happiness that is radiating through these people who’ve struggled through addictions, abuse, uncertainty, and more. He’s not trying to swindle anyone out of money, or sleep with all the women the way that some of the guru’s were that he began the project covering. One of his students worked two or three jobs to support her four children who are now grown and out of the house. She now feels guilty when she does anything for herself. Kumare is helping this woman heal that pain. That’s real. Just because Kumare is a character doesn’t negate that progress and much needed and deserved happiness.
What is he doing to these people? How will they react when he tells them he's not who they think he is? He has to tell them, he has to come clean, but what will that mean? Will people feel betrayed? Will they realize that his "it's all inside of you already" teachings were still true no matter what source they came from? Vikram struggles mightily with when and where and how to reveal his true identity to his disciples. He realizes that Kumare is who he wishes he were in his every day life. Not the fake accent and robes, but the attentiveness, the being fully present and aware and engaged with every moment in life. Really listening to people and communing with them from his heart. Why isn't he like that all the time? Kumare isn't just a character, it's inside him. It all came from him. Why can't he live his life that way? Is that how easy it is to become the one you long to be? Just do it?
How his disciples react to the bombshell I’ll leave for you to discover, but I’ll say that I wonder how I would react if I was one of them. I wonder if I’d have a different feeling about the movie if I weren’t looking in from the outside. If a man had led me into some happier place in my mind, I’d likely be pretty pissed that that man was a fake. But seeing the movie as I do, I see that Vikram Gandhi has a good heart, and Kumare brought that out even more in him. He even says, “My idealized self is Kumare.” And aren’t we all looking to become the best version of ourselves?