“The ONLY TRUTH about this movie is that YOU LIED to everyone.” – Indiewire.com comment, March 13, 2011
The above angry remark was written in response to the new documentary “Kumaré,” which premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and is being released in theaters this week. The film won the festival’s Audience Award and a certain level of critical acclaim, but it also drew a fair amount of fury from those who felt the movie’s maker, Vikram Gandhi, was deceptive and dishonest.
The film follows Gandhi (aptly named) on a quasi-spiritual journey, in which he poses as an enlightened yoga guru named Kumaré, moves to Arizona, and sets up shop in Phoenix to interrogate America’s cult of spirituality. (The New Jersey-born Gandhi grew up aware of how Indian culture and faith had been continually co-opted, bastardized and trivialized). Despite the fact that his “Sri Kumaré” philosophy is utter bunk, Gandhi quickly builds a small but loyal flock of real-life disciples who believe he is the key to their self-actualization.
Kumaré calls to mind Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, in which the famous British comedian famously duped dozens of Americans, exposing anti-Semitism, racism and sexism across the nation. Indeed, in general form and framework Kumaré resembles Cohen’s Kazakh stunt: It revolves around the exploits of a central figure who is not what he seems, and one of the film’s main tensions lies in thefact that the real people around him don’t realize he’s made-up. But Kumaré lacks Borat’s mean-spiritedness. Rather, Ghandi’s film is a sincere inquiry into the nature of faith and the fuzzy line that divides illusion and reality. The movie’s tagline is instructive: “Fake guru. Real truth.”
Kumaré is neither mockumentary, on the order of This Is Spinal Tap or Best in Show, nor is it akin to faux-verite provocations like David Holtzman’s Diary or Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park, all of which disguise fiction as reality. There are no actors, for one thing. Gandhi, while often playing the part of a guru, remains Gandhi: His dialogue is not scripted, even as Kumaré, and it’s often difficult to discern where the real Gandhi ends and the fake Kumaré begins.
The question of “truth” in documentary is always a contentious one. From the staged sequences of the seminal early doc Nanook of the North to the work of Werner Herzog (and his interest in an “ecstatic truth”), the veracity of the real world represented onscreen is never simply or faithfully conveyed in nonfiction movies.
As Errol Morris, another doc-maker weary of “cinema verite” once said, “When people talk about truth, they have this idea that truth is just sort of handed over to you. Say on a combo platter, the truth combo platter. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s difficult to come by, and properly speaking, it’s a quest; it’s the pursuit of an ideal.”
Then there’s Michael Moore, the documentary form’s reigning king of manipulation, about whom one can argue—as Vincent Canby wrote in his New York Times review of Roger and Me in 1989, “Playing fair is for college football. In social criticism, anything goes.” And if Morris or Moore aren’t evidence enough of the blurry relationship between the documentary form and truth, there’s always Jean-Luc Godard’s famous dictum: “You can start with either fiction or documentary. But whichever you start with, you will inevitably recall the other.”
Kumaré makes for an exemplary illustration of Godard’s theory. At first Vikram Gandhi explores his thesis from a purely documentary perspective, initiating his project by simply interviewing spiritual gurus to reveal their flaws and fakery. Then he invented a totally fictional persona to further investigate the cult of the guru. And then, in so doing, he inadvertently becomes a pivotal real-life character within his own documentary. When a handful of ordinary folks truly believe in him and his ability to transform their lives, Gandhi stumbles into a profoundly personal and moral quandary that is utterly real. The joke is on him as much as anyone else.
This Moebius Strip of documentary andfiction may be closer to Exit Through the Gift Shop, street artist Banksy’s art-world expose from 2010. They both focus on real people who are performing reality to some extent, and they both also interweave questions about their veracity and the dubiousness of “truth” into the very fabric of their stories. For example, Gandhi’s Kumaré, speaking in his overly thick Indian accent, continually articulates his own falsehood in his teachings: “I’m the biggest faker that I know,” he says. More to the point, Gandhi, speaking as himself in voiceover at different points in the film, isn’t even sure if Kumaré is entirely fictive. He’s losing his identity to the character he’s created.
If Exit asks how we value authenticity in art, Kumaré ultimately raises a similar question: Does truth play a part in our spiritual lives, and in the case of something so ineffable and faith-based, is it superfluous? If Kumaré’s disciples become healthier and self-actualized, what does it matter if the character is complete bullshit? He did the work of a “real” guru, anyway. And that is, of course, Gandhi’s point in the first place.
As another Indiewire commenter, “Kimberly,” posted on April 2, 2011:
“It wasn’t a lie. He told us all the way through the teachings that it was just an illusion. Everyone that participated had the choice to believe or not to believe. No one likes to find out that what we think is true is something other than what we want it to be.”
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog for Indiewire.com.