Why you should care

Because mysterious things happen when a fake guru tries to out-guru the gurus.

Have you met Kumaré? Oh, you should. He is more than a man. He is a way. He is also the subject of Vikram Gandhi’s 2011 documentary, Kumaré, in which the filmmaker, a fairly regular guy from New Jersey who’s of Indian ancestry, poses as a guru just to see what people do. What they do is treat him like a real guru, forcing him to keep acting like one, and to figure out whether or how he’ll break it to his surprising number of new disciples that it was all just a form of self-exploration that got way out of hand.

He couldn’t help but film himself growing out his beard, posing as a wise man and making up ridiculous yoga moves. For this he gained a following.

Growing up, Gandhi explains, he became skeptical of the burgeoning guru industry. So he did some field research. “The Indian gurus were just as phony as the ones I’d found in America,” he says. “I felt like the gurus were trying to out-guru each other.” And somehow he couldn’t help but film himself growing out his beard, imitating the voice of his radiantly peaceful grandmother, posing as a wise man from the East and making up ridiculous yoga moves. For this he gained a following.

As people sought Kumaré out and came to him with “stories of suffering,” his impulse wasn’t to mock them but to empathize. He tried to tell them that they didn’t need a guru, that none of us do. Soon, from under the beard, Gandhi began dropping guilty hints that he was struggling to do away with his own phoniness, but that only drew his disciples closer. He’d created a monster — or at least a weird cross between a Sacha Baron Cohen character, Peter Sellers in Being There and the accidental-mystic protagonist of R.K. Narayan’s 1958 novel, The Guide.

Kumaré carries the first-person documentary, as popularized by Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, to its logical conclusion. It’s not just about a man who makes himself the subject of a movie documenting his own attempt to build a cult of personality; it’s also about why a man would do such a thing, and what happens when he does. Inner peace and enlightenment may or may not be forthcoming, but the true revelation here is how human credulity can be both a virtue and a vice.

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