The son of Indian immigrants, Vikram Gandhi’s relationship with faith is fairly typical for someone with his upbringing. His parents raised him in Hindu traditions, but the religious rituals he became immersed in served more as a reminder of his familial history than a strict religious doctrine.
“I think it’s more that it was an immigrant family to carry on the traditions that would kind of be lost,” he says.
As a kid, he would joke about the rituals, and though he spent considerable time as a child learning religious rites and memorizing texts, he drifted away from the religion as he got older. As he turned to filmmaking, he became fascinated by the West’s obsession with his native culture: Yoga was everywhere. And leading the way were gurus, people who claimed to have the answers to life’s biggest questions and who were eager to share their wisdom with the world, maybe for a price. Gandhi wanted to make a documentary about them.
“These people insisted they were somehow different from everybody else in some inexplicable way,” Gandhi says in his documentary Kumare, showing at the Boulder International Film Festival on Feb. 18. “But none of them seemed any different to me.”
Every guru seemed to be out-guruing each other, Ghandi noticed, and he had an idea: “Could people find the same peace in a made-up religion that they did in a real one?” So he became the guru named Kumare. He grew out his hair and beard, adopted his grandmother’s Indian accent, put on a sarong and moved to Tucson, Ariz.
“I wanted to prove to people look ing for answers that no one is more spiritual than anyone else. That spiritual leaders are just an illusion, that we are the ones that decide who or what is real.”
He cultivated a small following of devoted disciples from all walks of life and with varying levels of education and economic success. He invented chants, philosophies and yoga moves (including one that looked like doing a Pete Townshend windmill on air guitar) and taught them to his students.
The reactions to these completely fabricated moves, captured by the camera crew, are jaw-droppingly genuine and heartfelt.
At some point Gandhi has a realization. He had been lying about his identity to prove a point about the hackery of modern-day gurus, but to his students, he was an important force in their lives. His philosophies and teachings might have been fake, but the desperate nature of his students’ unanswered spiritual questions was not.
He felt compelled to live up to his students’ perception of him, or else he would be committing the same sin as the gurus he set out to expose.
The documentary focuses on how Gandhi feels about this realization, and the results may not be pretty, but they are fascinating. The project not only affected his disciples, but Gandhi himself.
One of his teachings involved manipulating some sort of blue light (whether the light is actually real or just figurative is unclear) while seated in a yoga pose. He realizes that to his disciples, the energy was real.
“And for the first time,” he narrates, “I felt the blue light.”