Kumare Documentary Summary and Review: Morally Wrong Or Refreshing Doc?

A light hearted watch which gets to the heart of life's big questions.

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If you’re on the hunt for an original documentary that explores the nature of spirituality and spiritual leadership, I have just what you need.

In recent years, we have seen many gurus fall from grace. This documentary shows just how easy it is to become one.

  • Runtime: 84 minutes
  • Release: 2011
  • Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
  • IMDb: 7.5/10
  • Where to watch: Kumare is available on demand via Amazon, iTunes, GooglePlay and more. The official website also has the option to buy and download a digital file of the move.

Quick Summary of Kumare *Spoilers!*

Kūmāré is a 2011 documentary where American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi conducts a social experiment by posing as a spiritual leader. He creates a fictitious persona of Sri Kumare, a fake guru from India, and sets off to build a following in Phoenix, Arizona.

The documentary explores themes of faith, authenticity, and the dynamics between leaders and followers, ultimately challenging the idea of seeking enlightenment from external sources.

Although this film is fairly light-hearted, it poses some serious existential questions. Why do we seek spiritual guidance? Is it possible to experience the same benefits by following a false prophet or fake belief system as you do following an established religion?

From the get-go, Vikram’s plan includes coming clean to his ‘disciples’ about his true identity. However, this part proves to be unexpectedly challenging. Experiment or not, as Kumare, Vikram ends up developing genuine human connections.

A white figure standing in the middle of many black figures.

My Kumare Documentary Review

As a personal preference, I like to go into documentaries blind. Although I can’t deny my biases, this approach allows me to experience the story without making premature conclusions.

Of course, I could not help watching Kumare through the lens of being a yoga teacher and active practitioner, and a skeptical one at that.

Vikram Gandhi’s Background

Vikram Gandhi grew up in a Hindu family in New Jersey. In an attempt to discover the appeal and effects of spirituality, Gandhi studied religion in college. Admittedly, it only enhanced his skepticism.

In light of the emergence of yoga in the West, Vikram went on to spend time with self-proclaimed American and Indian gurus. 

Eventually, it led him to ask the question, What makes people follow a spiritual leader? What does it take to become someone people would follow?

In an effort to find the answers, Vikram becomes a fictional persona of Sri Kumare, named after his middle name (Kumar). He grows out his hair and beard, wears colorful robes, and adopts his grandmother’s Indian accent, along with the broken English.

All of the filmmaker’s motivations are clearly laid out at the beginning of the documentary, allowing the viewer to focus on the action at hand.

A hindu sage standing with a trident against mountains.

The Documentary’s Production

I think it is fair to say that Kumare is a relatively low-budget project, even considering the expenses incurred to create and upkeep the enlightened guru persona.

There are no big Hollywood names attached to this documentary, nor was it co-opted by a network or streaming service. Instead, this seems to have been a passion project made through Vikram’s own production company, Disposable.

Overall, the independent feel of this film suits the subject perfectly. Part of me believes that the small crew made it more credible to Kumare’s disciples. Of course, this is only a speculation on my part.

The Hawthorne Effect

Whenever I watch a documentary, I always have to remind myself that what we see on screen is colored by the characters’ awareness that they are being filmed

This effect was first observed during a series of studies conducted in the late 1920s to the early 1930s at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Chicago, which is why it is now known as the Hawthorne effect.

Even accounting for the editing, certain moments made me question how genuine the real people of this social experiment were. I knew that Kumare was fake, but what about everyone else?

Editing and Storytelling

I want to give credit to the editing of this documentary. Not only was the story easy to follow, but it also made the participating parties appear sympathetic.

With the premise that a person goes undercover as a spiritual guru, this could have easily devolved into a dynamic where Kumare’s followers would be seen as being mocked and ridiculed.

Instead, the documentary makes a great effort to show us the very human desire for spiritual connections, reassurance, and support in every person who makes an appearance in this film.

Equally, we were shown that Vikram’s aim wasn’t to humiliate people but rather show them that they do not need external guidance from a guru. 

Wall art of Maharishi and the Beatles.

Broad Impressions

First of all, it was extremely refreshing to watch a documentary that wasn’t about the depravity of the human mind.

Many of the popular documentaries, including ones centered around yoga and spirituality, are made under the umbrella of the true crime genre. In contrast, Kumare was a light-hearted watch that did not rely on shock value to keep the story interesting.

Speaking of genre, I would argue that this documentary was intended as a comedy, specifically satire. Numerous times throughout the film, Kumare confesses that he is as fake as they come, only for his words to be interpreted as wisdom.

At times, I fully expected Vikram to break character and break the fourth wall1 Miyamoto, K. (2023, March 20). What Does Breaking the Fourth Wall Mean? ScreenCraft. https://screencraft.org/blog/what-does-breaking-the-fourth-wall-mean/ a la Fleabag or The Office. 

The narrative also follows a typical story pattern we see in comedies. A skeptical main character starts doing something as a way to prove a point. And yet, by the end, he discovers that his manipulations have genuinely helped people.

What’s more, the story has a (mostly) happy ending. When Vikram finally reveals his identity, Kumare’s followers appreciate his reasoning and accept him outside of his Kumare persona.

What’s more, Vikram comes to realize that Kumare is not just a role he got to play, but rather a manifestation of his best true self.

That said, the documentary also admitted that some of Kumare’s disciples did not continue contact with Vikram after the revelation. 

A crowd cheering.

My Main Takeaways

The Kumare documentary presents an interesting oxymoron. Just like the paradoxical benevolent dictator2 Walker, H. J. (1995). Benevolent Dictators and the Paradox of a Democratic King. 35–81. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780195089080.003.0002, Sri Kumare was a guru who preached that you don’t need his guidance. Someone who defrauded people in order to help them improve their lives.

From a personal standpoint, the documentary made me rethink my past experiences, particularly as a yoga teacher and practitioner. How many times have I been inspired by another teacher’s words, or a quote attributed to a yoga sage, without checking for the authenticity of the source?

And at the end of the day, does it really matter? If those words had a positive impact on my practice or my life… Surely they are worth just as much as if they came from a ‘true’ source?

Ethical Considerations

Naturally, this doc poses a question about ethics. On one hand, The goal of Vikram’s social experiment was to reveal to people how easy it can be to fake being a guru and show them they are their own best teachers.

On the other hand, vulnerable people tend to be more susceptible to recruitment3 Curtis, J. M., & Curtis, M. J. (1993). Factors related to susceptibility and recruitment by cults. Psychological Reports73(2), 451–460. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.1993.73.2.451 in religions and cults. Although the sample size of Kumare’s following is small, the documentary showed that they sought his teachings due to the various struggles they faced in their lives.

Now, imagine learning that the person you confided your deepest fears, and your sacred secrets to, turns out to be someone else. Someone who viewed you as his experiment subject. At the very least I would be uncomfortable, wouldn’t you?

At the end of the film, we are told what the disciples have been up to in the aftermath of the grand reveal. While some of his followers continued their self-improvement, several people no longer keep in touch with Vikram/Kumar.

I did not find it surprising, and clearly, neither did Gandhi. Despite the context, Kumare ends up becoming genuine friends with his followers, which understandably makes it difficult for Vikram to ‘come out’.

In fact, during his first ‘unveiling’ event, he struggles to come forward, backing out of that commitment at the last moment. Later, he chooses to reveal the truth through a video address, entering the room afterward as Vikram Gandhi the filmmaker.

The fact that it was all a part of a documentary film makes the issue even more layered. It’s one thing to realize that the person you put your trust in isn’t who you thought they were. It’s a whole different matter where this person’s deception is featured on camera, along with some of your very vulnerable moments.

Please note that this is a speculation on my part. The documentary does not go into detail as to why certain people chose to walk away, literally or figuratively.

I am sure that documentaries produced in the US require some consent or release forms. However, if the participants were deceived about the nature of the film and their role in it, it may be legal but ethically questionable.

If you enjoyed the comedic style of this documentary and Kumare’s character in particular, you’ll be glad to know that Vikram reprised his role in the 2020 series The Guru Inside You.

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An avid yoga practitioner, Cat completed her training as a Hatha yoga teacher in 2016. She firmly believes that with the right guidance, yoga can benefit everyone, regardless of age, gender, size, or ability. With a background in journalism, Cat realized she could share her yoga experience with others, kickstarting her freelance writing career.

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