“Kumaré” explores whether people can find as much peace in a made-up ‘placebo’ religion as in a ‘real’ one
“Kumaré” explores whether people can find as much peace in a made-up ‘placebo’ religion as in a ‘real’ one

Don’t believe everything you’ve heard about Arizona. Despite being stereotyped as the land of border-patrolling Minutemen, gun nuts, Birchers, and birthers, it turns out that the Grand Canyon State is just like Berkeley, only with more pools. All this and much more is revealed in Kumaré, a new documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, September 7th.

A second generation Indian-American from New Jersey, Kumaré director Vikram Gandhi was immersed in Hindu philosophy and ritual from an early age by his deeply religious parents, who – like many first-generation immigrants – were desperate to ensure their offspring didn’t stray too far from his roots. Gandhi predictably rebelled, and, despite studying religion in college, became increasingly skeptical as he grew older.

Even a skeptic, however, has questions he can’t answer. In Gandhi’s case those questions centered on his grandmother, whose ability to achieve profound calm through prayer had puzzled him since childhood. Determined to find the source of her calm, the aspiring filmmaker began the spiritual journey documented in Kumaré.

Gandhi’s search initially took him to India, where he found a plentiful supply of gurus peddling spiritual snake oil to gullible Western tourists. Unimpressed by the local holy men – who seemed more eager to ‘out guru’ the competition than to deliver genuine enlightenment to their customers – Gandhi returned home determined to prove that spiritual leaders are just illusions.

Beginning a project he dubbed The Spiritual Placebo Project, Gandhi grew his hair and beard, donned saffron robes, and adopted a cheesy Peter Sellers-style Indian accent. Kumaré was born and immediately relocated to Phoenix, a town Gandhi thought would be receptive to an aspiring guru. He was right.

An almost overnight sensation in the desert, Kumaré rapidly graduated from street side performance artist to guest lecturer at local yoga studios. (Judging from what we see in the film, there’s a yoga studio on every Phoenix street corner.) Teaching his unique exercises, rituals, and chants (all of which he’d made up), Gandhi/Kumaré soon had a dedicated group of adherents hanging on his every word.

Surprised by his whirlwind success, Gandhi was now trapped. Horrified at the prospect of shattering the faith of his true believers, he also knew he was doing them no favors by continuing to masquerade as a holy man. Kumaré (the film) details the struggles of Kumaré (the charlatan) to come clean and admit to being a fake via a final reel ‘unveiling’ that doesn’t exactly go as planned.

Can people find as much peace in a made-up ‘placebo’ religion as in a ‘real’ one? Based on the evidence in Kumaré, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’ – even when your guru looks like a gone-to-seed Russell Brand. Though some viewers will undoubtedly and understandably take offense at Gandhi’s play-acting, the film offers a simple affirmation few will find disagreeable: the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, and you don’t need a holy man to find it.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...