Starring Vikram Gandhi
Directed by Vikram Gandhi
Not rated

For its first couple of minutes, Kumaré seems like it’s gearing up to be a Religulous aimed at yogis. All the ingredients are there: the skeptical narrator, the world religion, and the devout masses who are about to unwittingly welcome an outsider into their midst. But round about minute three or so, it becomes clear that Vikram Gandhi, the creator, director, and main participant of Kumaré, is no Bill Maher. There will be no — well, make that very little — laughing at idiots and their ridiculous beliefs (which is what made up much of Religulous). Instead, Gandhi wants to help people. He’s just attempting to do so through a pretty risky social experiment.

Gandhi, we learn, is a native New Jerseyan and the son of Indian immigrants, who raised him as a Hindu. After losing his faith as a young adult, Gandhi traveled through India seeking out spiritual leaders, only to find that behind each person’s supposed disavowal of the world lay a definitively worldly desire for power, money, or both. So Gandhi decided to try something: he would disguise himself as a guru and see if he could attract followers back home in the States. If he could become a guru, then anybody could.

After growing his hair and beard out and immersing himself in the study of yoga Gandhi throws on the loincloth and orange tunic of Indian holy men, grabs a weird, trident-like staff, and tops the whole thing off by assuming a major Indian accent. Then he heads to Phoenix, Ariz. with two female accomplices to find some disciples.

The experiment sounds risky at best and like a train wreck at worst, especially since Gandhi, who is now known as Kumaré, seems to be relatively unassuming and thin-skinned, unsuited to the task of mass deception. But it turns out that he’s extremely convincing. With the help of his lady friends, who book yoga classes and appearances for Kumaré, the false teacher amasses a decent-sized following. Students are drawn to him, approaching him unabashedly to share their feelings and gratitude for his teachings (even though Gandhi makes up every yoga pose and meditation). It would be funny in a mean-spirited way, if it weren’t so obvious that what these people are drawn to is not any particular teaching, but Kumaré’s total willingness to honestly connect with them. He looks his eager fans in the eyes, listens quietly to what they tell him, offers what advice he can in guru-like fashion, and ends it all with an affectionate hug. Seeing this happen again and again makes one consider how rare those sorts of connections are in life, while also making it clear why Kumaré is such a success.

As the deception continues, Gandhi finds himself settling into his guru-self and spouts much wiser stuff than one might expect, given the premise of the film. He even continually points out to his followers that he, their guru, is an illusion. Of course, everyone thinks he’s speaking in a spiritual context, so they don’t give it a second thought. The conflict between what Kumaré says with his voice and what he says with his affected appearance brings up questions of truth and illusion that grow more complicated as his relationship with his students deepens. By the time he is set to reveal himself, the plot has thickened to such a degree that it seems unclear whether telling the truth really is the right thing to do.

From a visual aspect, Gandhi eschews the usual strategies beloved of documentarians. There are only a couple of montages, hardly any dips into the history of gurus or religion in general, and minimal use of the still photograph — all welcome deviations. The result is a film that feels more immediate and focused than many. There are a couple of trite moments, such as the shots of Gandhi, post-Kumaré, standing alone and disconnected at a college reunion party. We get the point — he’s lonelier as himself than he was as the guru — without needing to see him gaze distractedly around the room.

The most appealing parts of the film are when Kumaré is engaging one-on-one with his followers, when you can actually see the tiny epiphanies happening. No matter how little you believe in mysticism or spirituality, it’s hard to ignore the peaceful positivity that the man seems to bring out in people. There’s a good chance you’ll leave wondering wistfully what your own “ideal self” could be like.