Sri ‘Kumaré‘ is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people. Now, he is conflicted — can he unveil the truth to these disciples with whom he has spent so much time, and who now look to him for guidance?
We talked to Vikram Gandhi about his own connection with spirituality, the moral questions he faced in developing a philosophy, as well as the apprehension from original audiences. Since then the film has gone on to win the best feature film documentary award at he 2011 SxSW Film Festival and has made an impact on film festivals and audiences around the world
Buy or Rent Kumaré on iTunes – HERE
How long ago did the idea for Kumaré begin circulating in your mind? How long until production began?
Before I began making Kumaré I was making another film that was primarily about other spiritual leaders I was meeting in America, and a few in India, in the yoga industry specifically. I started making a documentary about similar topics, approaching the complicated nature of the American definition of spirituality. Through that process I was filming a lot of people and was approaching it as a sceptical look at gurus and at America’s fascination and reinvention of Eastern mysticism. At some point I felt it would be more interesting if I approached the film in a different way and that is when the character of Kumaré started coming up. It was just an idea, not necessarily for a movie at first. Being Indian, I think the character of Kumaré is something I have thought of my whole life. There are so many Indian stories about people who have done that. I took it seriously one day and tried the character out. I would say this was about a year and a half before making the movie.
How would you describe your personal relationship with spirituality?
Intellectually I didn’t need to make the film in order to understand the topics that were being discussed. This was my way of experiencing them in a much bigger and more real way from the previous film. Eastern religion and philosophy is called spirituality in America. People have said “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual and people would call me a Buddhist sometimes“, which is interesting because Buddhism is a religion. I think that what we’re talking about is a new way of identifying what spirituality is, that happens to do with Eastern religion, and also a new age hybridization of traditions.
My relationship to those things is that I have always had an appreciation for the wisdom that comes out of it. I’m interested in the art, mythology and rituals, but also the understanding of how it plays a role in our lives; seeing how we take things from other cultures and ancient times and try to wedge them into our lives so that we can make sense of ourselves. I have an appreciation for all religious traditions and I think there is something interesting in how we have disjointed spirituality and religion.
What were some of the influences behind the look and feel of the Kumaré?
The basic template is ‘What is America’s fantasy of what an Indian guru looks like?‘ That collective unconscious of most of the world almost unanimously describes a long beard and long hair in their spiritual leaders; God in the Sistine Chapel, Jesus is depicted that way and so on. I based some of the look off of Indian monks called Sadhus who often have a trident. It’s also emulating the god Shiva, but the trident is also associated with Greek god Poseidon so the same images come up all over the world.
I’m Indian so the only version of a spiritual master I could play is an Indian Yogi. Maybe I would have been Thor if I was from Sweden. Also, the reason I was interested in making it was because of the boom in Yoga in America. Otherwise, I just drew from so many different influences that are too many to describe, but mostly from Buddhist teachings, philosophy I have read and things I’ve been taught. I had read a lot of philosophical Indian teachings before making the film.
Did anyone ever question your age? You are on the younger side and a lot of spiritual leaders are towards the older end of the age spectrum. Was this ever a question with your students?
Well, Jesus died when he was 33 so there is no problem when it comes to a religious leader having some youth in them. There were handful of people who did want to ask my age though. When we first started shooting we did a class and someone wrote ‘has anyone ever heard of Kumare yoga? I just did it and its a mixture of exercise, meditation and humor. The guy who teaches it couldn’t be over 30‘. I was 32 when I was making it. I would talk about age as if it is unimportant and was a Western obsession with numbers and age. It probably didn’t matter if anyone found out, but when you put numbers and categories on people you become a very practical entity and we were all about being vague; flowing clothes, flowing beard, androgynous background.
At the same time as I was making Kumaré there was this guru named Nityhananda who was born a few days after me. He had a lot of different followers around the world and, at the same time we were making the movie, a sex tape came out with him. Another guru of the same age had been outed.
The real thing that sets gurus apart is that they have had an epiphany at some point in their life. Maybe it’s that your epiphany usually comes when you’re older or something but it doesn’t have to be. I think that is what legitimizes them. I feel an older person would have a grandfatherly feel where as I was a contemporary with a lot of the people.
By the end of the film how deep into the character did you find yourself? Did it become more involved then just a character?
I think that the movie production was a creation that grew to be much more then something that happened when the camera was rolling. Over a period of time I had to get into a mindset where I was living Kumaré as closely as I could. In some ways it’s just an extreme form of method acting. I think that since my relationship with everyone was going to go on past the film it became a documentation of real events rather then just a movie.
There are a few powerful moments where your students admit the past issues which have brought them towards spirituality, and ultimately with their connection to you. How did you feel once you heard the real life stories of people looking towards faith and spirituality as a way of guidance, knowing that you went into it as a character essentially?
I thought we shouldn’t be doing this movie six months before we even started making it and I thought we shouldn’t have made it a few days ago. There is always self doubt about who is able to decide who is credible in having strong opinions about spiritual matters, as well as show other people a new way of thinking. This is the complicated contradiction of making this movie. The film itself is critiquing people who believe they have greater spiritual wisdom then others and here we are making a movie which doing the same thing. I realized I had put enough thought in making this one point about faith and religion that I felt quite confident about doing it. That point being that there was something wrong with our perception of spiritual leaders and how that translated in America. People were seeing whatever they wanted to see. Therefore the only way to make a movie like this was to have this veil that was Kumaré. It’s more complicated then saying ‘this is wrong‘ because the mission we were on was very specific and slightly bigger then us. The real way to think about it is that if you believe in a certain methodology then everything that Kumaré did had to embody it. I had to stick with this philosophy. I didn’t know anything about these people and it was all about showing them that they can achieve whatever they want on their own.
So was the unveiling always planned or was it something you decided while filming?
In the film it’s a little unclear. It seems like everything was being thought of on the spot, but I had always gone out there with the basis of a mirror philosophy and the basis of the unveiling. There were loose ends and things that didn’t make full logical sense when we went out there, and things that didn’t make sense in the logical world but those things were left behind. From the start, the unveiling was always the way I imagined the film ending and the only way I could imagine the film ending. If you look on the Kumare.org website, which has been up since before we made the movie, it shows the philosophy and there is a course that people can take which is called ‘The Unveiling Teaching‘. To say that I knew how it would all go down I can’t, I was surprised by every moment, but it was there in planning.
Since you were so immersed in this character, and I’m sure it was a very emotional experience, how did you find the transition from the production to going through the motions of festivals, distribution and finding an audience?
I liked making the movie more! As many miffs as we have about religion, we have more about independent film that need to be conquered. It was a sobering experience to release the movie. On the good end, going into it I felt like an outsider on the subject, gazing in and figuring out what the world was thinking about me. After making the movie and meeting audiences all over the place, it’s come to my attention that I was never alone in asking the questions that the film asked. I was always in a room with other people with the same questions, I just happened to be the person who posed them in a different way.
Did you encounter any apprehension towards the films subject matter from industry figures?
Yeah. I think everyone at the premier was confused. There were rumors of lawsuits and all sorts of things going around. We had something different from all the other documentaries I had seen just in the simple way it was made. To me that was something that was more relevant, but a lot of people were confused for sure. It took some time for specific people in other industries to support the message of the film. It’s interesting to watch how opinions are formed based on other peoples opinions. It’s cool to see who is free thinking and who isn’t.
Speaking as filmmaker, how is the VOD strategy towards distribution beneficial to building your audience?
The idea is building an audience at home who want to watch a movie and will perhaps watch yours. Getting into that many homes is something that opens a whole new audience to us. Everyone has seen the decline of theatrical independent releases. It’s interesting to see how many more people you can reach on these new platforms. A theater only holds a couple of hundred seats at most. I think VOD gives more power to filmmakers, if they choose to use that power. It’s tiring and it’s not something that most filmmakers would have ever imagined having to be involved with. I think it is cool to open up to the new audiences and find people who may not have seen the movie. We’ll see! The industry is changing and this is my first film.
Going forward, is this the last we have seen of Kumare?
I have a number of different things in the works that are similar in this movie making style. I’m also working on a feature which is not the same at all. I definitely will be shooting documentaries in the future. There is something to be learned from this method of filmmaking. It is so specific. The only way that Kumaré could have been made is the fact that he wasn’t real and that is not true with a lot of subjects that I’m interested in.
As for Kumaré himself, I think that if the world needs Kumaré then he will come back. There can be a second or third coming of Kumaré.