How to Create a Cult

In Kumaré, Vikram Gandhi sets out to determine whether a fake guru could be just as convincing as a “real” guru.

Michael Atkinson

<i>Waltz with Bashir</i> explores nightmares of the Israeli-condoned, 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

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The new documentary Kumaré is a mystery wrapped in an enigma — largely because its filmmaker, Vikram Gandhi, doesn’t know what it is.

The film is a record of the ironically named Gandhi’s experiment in transforming himself into Kumaré, an Indian guru, for the delectation of American suckers. Gandhi is, he informs us, an unbeliever, a first-generation New Jersey kid who grew up Hindu in the burbs and went on to graduate from Columbia and thrive in a filmmaking career that included lots of advertising.

His years jumping counters for American Express, Energizer, Yahoo and Katy Perry suggest a revealing context — the adman blithely peddling salvation to the dumb masses, for fun and profit. But Gandhi doesn’t take money from his small tribe of acolytes. To hear his narration, he grows his beard long, affects his grandmother’s accent and invents an alternate persona simply to see if a fake guru could be just as convincing as a real” guru.

Gandhi is no innocent, and both his scam and his filmed document of that scam evoke a cracked-mirror version of a Sacha Baron Cohen stunt-satire— except Kumaré never tries to be funny. From the outset, Gandhi’s tone is faux-earnest, smug yet deferential, quickly limning his acolyte’s search for spiritual guidance in India, which in Gandhi’s view is filthy with charlatans.

Could he be such a charlatan, and sell snake-oil spiritualism to Americans? Gandhi figures, why not? Yet the question — why? — is left off the table.

The essential dishonesty of Gandhi’s stunt becomes his crucible, as Kumaré bops around a bustling New Age community in Arizona, beguiling yoga school students and, eventually, acquiring a core of 14 devotees, including dead-serious seekers, desperate single moms, lost ex-addicts, and more than a few young women wandering the crossroads of their nascent adult lives. The rather Ray Romano-ish Gandhi makes for a seductively studly guru, and he never shies away from intimate contact with his followers. The more he communes with them and hears their very real troubles and genuine hopes, the more Gandhi’s clever façade seems, to him and us, unsustainable.

There’s chilling reverb for Gandhi in having to advise his followers in major life decisions, given that he’s lying to them in every waking moment. For most of us, cognitive dissonance of this kind is an untenable condition; that Gandhi never falters in his masquerade suggests why he was so successful in his advertising career.

Gandhi finds the people around him to be entirely charming, nice, eagerly joyful people, which is understandable since they all worship his every syllable. (It’s understandable, too, from an adman’s perspective — short-term goldbrickers might scorn their marks, but a successful campaign of lies will inspire only fondness for the little people who believed what they were told.) They do believe just about anything (there’s a great deal of talk about extraterrestrials), and speak forcefully about the astral bonds they feel with Kumaré, and the planets from which they insist they came. Gandhi never rips these gullible fruitcakes and wounded fools, even though his entire film project is intent on exposing them as such.

In fact, Gandhi says he connected” more deeply with people as Kumaré than as Gandhi, using exactly the kind of language he originally scoffed at. After all, if there’s no difference between real” and fake,” one could assume it’s all fake. But Gandhi decides instead that it’s all real. This seems disingenuous at best. Kumaré would seem to interrogate the human hunger for fantastical scenarios revolving around our souls,” our emotional lives, personal meaning and the hope for an afterlife. But it doesn’t — Gandhi never frames the big questions, and never questions what he’s doing as anything more revealing than a prank.

It is, of course, revealing to a marginal degree about American credulity and what may well be a universal hole in humanity, looking to be filled by any sort of cockamamie tall tale. But it’s also revealing of Gandhi, and of the other America — the America of salesmen, spin doctors, think tank grifters and media manipulators, for whom the masses are merely reflections of their brilliant ability to exploit them. At scam’s end, Gandhi comes to see his followers” as his friends, but he never wonders what they were to him before. 

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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