In a frequently funny new documentary called Kumaré, young American filmmamker Vikram Gandhi grows a beard, adds an accent and a mantra, sheds a lot of clothes, and transforms himself into an Eastern guru who gains a following in the western desert.

As Sri Kumaré, he tells disciples the absolute truth—that he is a fake and they are the real gurus, that they have the power they are projecting onto the guru, and the guru is within them. But something about the accent and the trappings and the yoga poses persuade people otherwise, and damn if they don't still turn themselves over to him for guidance about the most intimate aspects of their lives—until several months into his experiment, he reveals himself as Vikram Gandhi at a kind of unveiling party he has planned from the start.

Part of the charm of the film is Gandhi's good nature. Kumaré just might be the best-natured takedown of belief you'll ever see. Despite their willing subjugation, the grudging guru maintains absolute respect for those who sought his “wisdom.”

What happens when people believe in a character that doesn't really exist? I chatted with Gandhi about the film.

VG: The real problem is that you can't tell someone who is inspired by someone else that the person they're inspired by is full of shit if they're getting results that are positive in their life.

HEM: But they talk funny.

VG: The language in which we think about spiritual leaders is hammered into our brains. Of course they're supposed to talk like this, supposed to dress like this. And they're supposed to have grand claims.

HEM: You weren't interested in that?

VG: I was obsessed with making a good movie and expressing something I saw as backwards. There's absolutely nothing in a posture that makes someone wise. We think of actors and rock stars as superficial and think of gurus as super deep. But the way we consume them is almost exactly the same. The basis of a lot of what we believe in is imaginary. All I was trying to do was make my own imaginary basis.

HEM: Don't people want something from you when you're a guru?

VG: I think people want happily-ever-after. They want things figured out, so then it's done. They want it because it seems like a very easy way to get by.

HEM: Easier than?

VG: Trying to figure out what the next step is in career or life. I have a million different influences, directions I could go in, different sources of information. It's really confusing. Sometimes you just don't know what is right. So when somebody comes along and seems to have a system of thought they are very confident in, it's very seductive.

HEM: Sort of a shortcut?

VG: I think in a way. I always found it tricky when I'd end classes and say, “you don't need a guru.” I thought, what am I doing? Why don't I talk more about mystical visions and everything? But I just couldn't do it because I didn't believe in it. The person Kumaré was couldn't say that either, because he didn't believe it. He was the straight man in most scenes.

HEM: What kind of insight did you get into having power?

VG: I don't want to be a spiritual leader. That's not one of my life goals. To me, if you have the wisdom and the ability to inspire people, you wouldn't inspire them to follow you. You'd inspire them to inspire themselves, right?

In other words, go see Kumaré.

About the Author

Hara Estroff Marano

Hara Estroff Marano is the Editor at Large of Psychology Today and the author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting.

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