Finding Some Principles by Telling Some Lies: Vikram Gandhi’s ‘Kumaré: The True Story of a False Prophet’
“Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience.” That quotation from the Anglican priest William Ralph Inge, which begins the documentary “Kumaré: The True Story of a False Prophet,” evokes the film’s ambiguous exploration of religion, teaching and spiritual leadership.
When Vikram Gandhi — the movie’s New Jersey-born director, protagonist and narrator — grows a beard and flowing hair and dons Indian robes to make a film in which he poses as a swami, you anticipate a cruel, “Borat”-like stunt. Cynics will expect a nasty chortle when this glib charlatan finally pulls the rug out from under his credulous followers.
But the outcome is much more complicated.
Disturbed by the yoga craze in the United States, Mr. Gandhi, a self-described first-generation immigrant from a Hindu background, travels to India and discovers that the swamis desperately trying to “outguru” one another are, he says, “just as phony as those I met in America.”
After returning to the United States, he transforms himself into Sri Kumaré and travels to Phoenix, where he gathers a circle of disciples. Imitating his grandmother’s voice, he imparts mystical truisms in halting, broken English. With his soulful brown eyes and soft, androgynous voice, he is a very convincing wise man.
Initially, Mr. Gandhi recalls, “I wanted to see how far I could push it.” He is shown presiding at one gathering with a picture of himself between portraits of Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden. But his earnest followers, including a death-row lawyer, a recovering cocaine addict and a morbidly obese young woman, are sympathetic, highly stressed Americans who pour out their troubles.