Recently I watched the documentary film, “Kumaré,” which debuted at the 2012 South by Southwest film festival, where it won the Feature Film Audience Award. The film was made by Vikram Gandhi, an American of Hindu extraction, who was born in New Jersey.
The film documents how Gandhi visited India to research gurus, and came to believe that most if not all of those he encountered firsthand were phonies and fakes of varying degrees. This in turn gives him an idea: Gandhi returns to America, grows out his hair and beard, adopts an Indian accent, and becomes a fake guru.
Inventing his own yoga moves and nonsense names, and a content-free pseudo-philosophy (“Find the guru within you,”), Gandhi transforms himself into a barefoot, staff-carrying yogi dubbed Sri Kumaré. Traveling to Arizona, he begins to gather a small cult of followers, practicing yoga and becoming a human reflection-pond with a permanent smile.
Kumaré’s followers are a varied lot. Their intense attachment to their false guru appears motivated by a variety of common human needs, including uncertainty about their lives, a need to tell their story to someone, and sheer loneliness. Some are self-absorbed and narcissistic, some are emotionally damaged or in emotional pain, and some are clearly intelligent, despite their willingness to believe that the guru is anything beyond an empty vessel mirroring their needs back to them.
That Gandhi has the stomach to watch these individuals progressively deepen their involvement and commitment to him is enough to make one pause at the questionable morality of his gambit, but after all, he has a movie to make, and he’s a man with a plan: Act 3 is supposed to be “the big reveal,” when he throws off his robes and tells the truth.
But the trouble is that when the time comes for Gandhi to tell the truth, he chickens out. And here is where the film takes a tricky turn that some, indeed, many, have and will fall for. But not all.
Because at initial attempt, our poor hero just can’t bring himself to own up to the truth. Instead we are treated to multiple shots of the obviously torn and troubled pseudo-spiritual leader, struggling with the challenge before him. But what is his concern, exactly? Is he worried about his followers? Seems the time for that should have come long before, when they first began to pour out their intimate and troubled stories to him (and the camera), and he had the opportunity to demonstrate some human decency and respect for the lives of others.
Many viewers and critics alike have fallen for the filmmaker’s blatant if effective manipulation of the audience. Oh, the poor man, he’s morally conflicted.
I don’t think he’s morally conflicted at all. I think the biggest narcissist on screen is the filmmaker himself, who falls in love with being a god-man (as yogis are often called in India), and can’t bring himself to give it up. Above all, he is terrified of the rejection and anger and perhaps worse that he anticipates he will receive when he tells his followers the truth. It is his fear of their judgment, the risk to his self-image, the threat to his inflated and addictive self-love that terrifies him. If it was concern for his followers, he would not hesitate to tell the truth – he would rush to tell it.
But here is where Mr. Gandhi – more clever than smart – is in for a surprise. He’s never read “When Prophecy Fails,” the classic social psychology text about cognitive dissonance, or the marvelous modern manual of the topic, “Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me,” by the social psychologist (and noted skeptic), Carol Tavris. And so as a viewer I was quite sure that most of Kumaré’s followers would in fact rationalize away the revelation that their spiritual leader was a cynical bullshitting filmmaker, using them for self-aggrandizement and to kick-start his budding film career – and I also fully expected that at least a few or more would in fact stand to embrace him.
And while it may be remarkable to much of the audience, none are more stunned than Mr. Gandhi himself when he finally reveals himself as the con man and moral reprobate he is – because after all, the show must go on! – and yet indeed, he is applauded and embraced by many of his victimized flock.
Many skeptics, in considering this story and film, will of course by now have thought of someone who already conducted this experiment, but was never conflicted about the intention in the lesson. No, I don’t mean Sacha Baron Cohen, whom many reviewers have referenced in considering “Kumaré.” Rather I mean none other than James Randi and Jose Alvarez, in their infamous “Carlos” hoax. In 1988, the two went to Australia and engineered a hoax in which Alvarez masqueraded as a spirit “channeler,” drawing large audiences to live performances, and creating a great deal of attention on television and in the mainstream media. The intention was always to reveal the facts behind the fraud, as a lesson in, among other things, how irresponsible and easily duped the professional media was. But “Carlos” never sought out individual followers to confess their personal stories and become personally attached to his leadership. Carlos’s audiences came, listened, and many were convinced, and the lesson was a profound one. (You can learn more about the Carlos hoax at the Skeptic’s Dictionary site, here. )
At the conclusion of “Kumaré,” we learn, unsurprisingly, that while many of the followers forgive Gandhi his moral and personal trespass with their lives, some do not. But this is merely given a passing mention in on-screen text epilogue before the credit crawl.
But if Vikram Gandhi actually had an ounce of real moral courage, he would have interviewed those people, and showed their anger and resentment and broken self-esteem on film, and let the world judge him truly. But even then, given his narcissistic appetite and cynical aptitude, combined with a clear eye for the bottom line, I predict a long and successful career in Hollywood.
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.