Neither fish nor fowl, documentary yoga satire “Kumare” raises a host of questions it can’t answer. As director-star Vikram Gandhi fashions himself into the titular fake Indian spiritual leader, what presumably started as a “Borat”-style lark exposing Americans’ spiritual gullibility and fetishism of the exotic turns into something more complicated as he begins to be taken seriously by his followers. But the film essentially punts on the many gnarled quandaries of faith and exploitation that arise. Winner of the audience documentary award at SXSW, “Kumare” could benefit from the controversy that’s sure to precede any release.
Born into a traditional Indian-American family, Gotham-based Gandhi recalls suffering through traditions that seemed designed solely to get him mocked by his American peers as a child, only to see those same traditions become part of the dominant culture with the proliferation of yoga studios across the country. Disturbed by what he sees as a rash of unscrupulous yogis (both Anglo and Indian) gaining followings, he grows out his beard, adopts a cartoonishly heavy accent, moves to Phoenix and renames himself Kumare, hoping to see how far he can take his fake holy-man act.
It will surprise no one that the answer is pretty far. In no time Kumare has developed a stable of students, whom he keeps in thrall with his invented yoga poses and mantras (one of which translates to “Be all that you can be”). His immediate problem, however, is that unlike the racist, homophobic rubes whom Sacha Baron Cohen makes his dupes, Gandhi’s followers are all almost comically nice people: There’s a lawyer who defends death-row convicts, an earnest recovering crack addict and a sweet twentysomething girl seeking solace from a failing marriage. What’s more, his gibberish teachings actually seem to be helping them.
It’s to Gandhi’s credit that he recognizes this early on, and while he’s a decent enough guy not to push his luck with these vulnerable people, it halts his experiment in its tracks. Aside from a bizarre meditation session involving photos of President Obama and Osama bin Laden, Gandhi never tries to advance his teachings into the truly ridiculous, and while there are questions raised by his students’ willingness to go along with such a nebulous version of Indian spirituality, it’s hard to fault them, either. In the end, Gandhi becomes genuinely troubled by the hold he’s developed on these people, but his attempts to find an ultimate theological lesson in this adventure feel more like his own personal justifications for starting a project that ballooned beyond his control.
Gandhi is more convincing as a guru than a narrator, and his voiceover observations can sometimes veer toward triteness. Modest technical credits are all well handled.