It is somewhat ironic and still not the least bit surprising to see Larry Charles’ name pop up in the “Thanks” section of the credits of “Kumare,” a documentary predicated on a central character who is a fraud. Charles, who flitted between the same lines of reality and fiction when directing Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat” and “Bruno” and went along for the religious inquisition of Bill Maher in “Religulous,” clearly was an influence on the path taken by Vikram Gandhi. As Gandhi demonstrates through the course of “Kumare,” the path he was already on wasn’t really working for him.
“America was embracing the same religion I was trying to escape,” Gandhi says in a voiceover during the opening moments of “Kumare,” the flatness of his American accent a dramatic change from the image we see before of Gandhi in the guise of Sri Kumare, a spiritual guru complete with a thick, flowing black beard and an Indian accent as pronounced as Apu on “The Simpsons.” Gandhi floods the screen with images of yoga studios and trendy New Age spiritualists as he says this and soon enough explains that he aims to debunk the notion that Eastern religion offers answers to Western culture that people can’t find on their own by posing as a shaman with no qualifications except whatever preconceptions people have based on his tanned skin and heavy accent.
It’s an inherently cynical premise, one that will be made even more so depending on your level of belief that Gandhi was propelled by his desire to explore issues around religion rather than kickstart his career as a filmmaker with such a catchy hook. (Actually, the film “Kumare” reminded me most of wasn’t any of Charles’ films, but instead the nakedly ambitious 1998 Myles Berkowitz comedy “20 Dates” in which the director documented his quest for love.)
However, the biggest surprise in “Kumare” is hardly his reveal that he’s not who he claims to be, but rather the reveal of the film itself to be sweet and as light as the sun in Phoenix where Kumare more or less sets up his practice, bonding with a group of seemingly ordinary residents who first attend his yoga classes and then are brought to his house for deeper spiritual sessions.
That Kumare makes these people strike yoga poses he’s created such as one particularly ridiculous looking one where he asks his followers to stick their tongue out like a panting dog is a concession to the comedy Gandhi aims for, but the humor is never really at the expense of the folks blind to the fact they’re being duped. As a result, “Kumare” never has the excruciatingly awkward big laughs of a project like “Borat,” but nor does it ever feel as cruel.
Instead, Gandhi actually uses them to get at a larger truth about the necessity of some kind of faith, not necessarily in a higher power, but in other people. The disciples, who range from an attorney who specializes in death penalty cases to a man who talks about taking free samples at the supermarket just so he can start up conversations, are often interviewed in front of strip malls and track housing, sterile locations that likely came about by happenstance, but suggest a loneliness that a figure like Kumare cures not with any of his theatrics, but by simply listening to their problems.
Though that observation is far less complex and gentler than the takedown of false prophets that Gandhi would seem to set up at the start of “Kumare,” it’s a revelation the filmmaker, even dressed in kurta pants as foreign to him as his disciples, comes by honestly.