“I am not who you think that I am,” says Kumaré, an Indian guru with a long beard and long hair, wearing a white robe and strings of red beads. He says this somewhat shakily, his white chalked eyebrows twitching slightly. He is flanked by two gorgeous yoga girls who look on with expressions of concern. Before him sit a number of people, of varying ages and all white, wearing red scarves over their heads. These are Kumaré’s followers: thus far unaware of what this documentary is really about, and oblivious to the truth that Kumaré is about to reveal, they are eager to hear what words of wisdom will next come from their guru’s mouth.
Thus opens the 2011 award-winning documentary Kumaré. This climactic scene will not be revisited until the end of the film, but we the audience are entrusted with the secret Kumaré was about to reveal. “My name is Vikram Gandhi,” the director and star of the film confesses in a voice-over, “And I wasn’t always a guru.”
In fact, Vikram is an American citizen, a self-proclaimed religious skeptic, and a young, emerging filmmaker. Kumaré is the culmination of his extreme social experiment in which he created and donned the persona of Kumaré, a charismatic Indian guru who is nothing but fake, yet radiates nothing but authenticity. As Kumaré, Vikram taught “made-up chants” and “nonsense rituals and yoga moves”, spoke about convoluted philosophical lessons about the illusion of identity, and eventually led a select group of students through a large-scale “Mirror teaching” in which they learned how to find the gurus within themselves.
Vikram’s motivation for this project came from a deep-seated distaste for gurus and other spiritual leaders who seemed to be in it for the wrong reasons, and who enjoyed the fame and money that came with their revered status, despite the fact that, as Vikram believed, they were really no more special than anyone else. He believes that every human has the capability within herself to find the answers she is looking for. His great idea was to prove this point by creating a bogus guru persona to see how easy it really was to make people fall for the act, and then to use that persona to teach the lesson that anyone can be a guru.
And people did fall for it. Including himself.
Although Vikram’s project professes to be about debunking the authenticity of certain types of spiritual leaders, I found that it raised some very poignant questions about the issue of authenticity itself. As the film progresses, it becomes harder and harder for even Vikram to distinguish the boundary between himself and Kumaré. And even though Kumaré is not “real”, he does succeed in teaching some very real lessons to his students.
This film points to the very slippery question of what exactly “real” means, particularly in terms of identity. Personally, I subscribe to the theory that all identity is performative, meaning that identity is a construct made up of how you present yourself and how people perceive that presentation. It is not, therefore, something inherent. The primary example of this school of thought is Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity. With her groundbreaking 1990 book, Gender Trouble, she established the idea that gender is purely a social construct. She clarifies and elaborates on this radical theory in Bodies That Matter (1993), where she addresses the question of inherent differences in corporeal physicality. Of course some bodies are different from other bodies, she acknowledges. However, it is impossible to have a neutral opinion about a body. Certain markers (body parts, height, bone structure, etc.) about a body carry with them particular social significance, and we impart the idea of “man” onto a body that we read as “male”. But this man-ness is completely socially constructed. In other words: if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, even if it has a goose gene, then isn’t it really, by dint of its performative nature, for all intents and purposes, a duck?
So what does that have to do with Kumaré? Quite a lot. Vikram grows his hair and beard, dons robes, and carries a staff in order to look like Kumaré; he imitates his grandmother’s Indian accent in order to sound like Kumaré; he spends months practicing yoga and meditation and sleeps outside in order to live like Kumaré; and he spends time establishing practices to teach others to help them learn lessons in which he truly believes in order to act like Kumaré. If he does all the things Kumaré does, therefore, how is he not Kumaré? And if Kumaré was “just” a performance, then where can we delineate the boundaries of such a performance? Is there a point of no return, where performance begins to become embodiment? Vikram is also perplexed by these issues, confessing “Living as Kumaré was starting to rub off on me.”
These questions of “true” identity and the boundaries of a persona are fundamental issues of the project that Vikram does not delve into, but which are pervasive throughout the film. It should not go unnoticed that Kumaré’s teachings involve an “identity transference” ritual, in which his students literally engage in role-play as they take on a guru’s identity, and give Kumaré the advice they would give to themselves.
These issues come to the fore, of course, in the final “unveiling”, in which Vikram confesses to his students his “true” identity. I will not rob you of the experience of seeing how he does this, or how his students react, as this is an incredibly powerful moment in the film. Kumaré is a well-made, tightly edited, incredibly engaging film, and the final scene is deftly orchestrated. I guarantee you will be holding your breath in those few tense moments of silence before Kumaré reveals himself as Vikram. The ensuing fallout will undoubtedly evoke a strong response from you.
Such social experiments often provoke strong criticism as to their ethics. I’m reminded of a similar project which involved the performance of a particular persona, which was denounced by some as deceit. But ethics are a slippery thing, and the potential problem with this societal fear of (and resulting anger toward) the “inauthentic”, is that it is the very ideology which has historically been used as an excuse for violence towards gays, lesbians, transfolk and other gender variant individuals, as well as sex workers. Although Kumaré seems worlds away from such tragedies, it is my hope that viewers will find in this film not only entertainment, but space to explore the ever present question of who or what is really real.
Emma Waldron (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Emma Waldron is a Rutgers alumna and currently works with first-year students as an academic advisor. She spent her formative years in Boulder CO before relocating to the Garden State, and recently spent a year living in Bristol, England where she completed her MA in Performance Research. Her research focuses on the concept of authentic identity, and her dissertation addressed issues of gender and musical performativity in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Emma has recently become vegan, and documents the transformation on her blog “I Am What I Eat”. Emma spends a lot of time thinking about Judith Butler, iambic pentameter, vegan cookies, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sunshine, drag queens, Nordic larp, and tea.