The term “false prophet” is an interesting can of worms when you examine its second word. In any dictionary, at the end of a long list of religious definitions, you will find a prophet described, more or less, as “a person regarded as, or claiming to be, an inspired teacher or leader.” Pretty mundane qualifications, really, although their banality is actually rather progressive. Clearly, dictionary authors are willing to accept the possibility that those who claim to be in touch with a higher power are nothing more than people who, well, claim to be in touch with a higher power. The etymology of the word “prophet” points only toward a suggestion of someone who talks a lot (due perhaps in part to the ancient Greeks being up to their eyeballs in orators), a skill many people possess without being in direct contact with the divine. If a prophet can be simply a person who claims to speak wisdom, and to whom other people will listen, what, then, is a “false” prophet?
This is the kind of question Vikram Gandhi, aka Kumaré, seeks to answer with the documentary film named for his alter ego, inspired by the conflict between his personal cynicism towards the guru-obsessed culture of his Indian family heritage and the genuine peacefulness he observed in his grandmother when she prayed. Gandhi invents his own top-knotted guru and goes balls-out adopting the persona of a wise teacher sent to enlighten and enliven the soul-searchers of Arizona’s tract home wastelands. With Orientalism on his side, he gathers a following culled from local yoga classes and begins to construct a spiritual framework for the health and happiness of his flock, with the eventual goal of revealing himself as a “fake.”
While Kumaré sells itself largely on the promise of lots of winks and smirks at the expense of the gullible, for a movie that hinges on successfully duping people it is a surprisingly thoughtful and compassionate piece of filmmaking — like Borat without the total evisceration of American culture. Kumaré’s spiritual platform, the outward component of which being mainly made up of modified/invented yoga and meditation practices, focuses on confidence, finding inner strength and a sense of empowerment, and self-actualization. While a few annoyingly pretentious characters flit across the screen, most of the guru’s followers turn out to be pretty great people in search of some peace or positive change in their lives, and their naiveté, while occasionally cringe-worthy, allows them to get something valuable out of Kumaré’s teachings — or at least Vikram Gandhi’s armchair insights on finding strength within and becoming one’s own guru.
Gandhi’s hubris might rub some people the wrong way, and, in fact, it often troubles Gandhi himself. Once the novelty of pulling off his scam has worn off, he spends a good deal of time feeling like an asshole. What’s both frustrating and pleasing about the film is the irony of the message — “you don’t need a guru to make you who you want to be” — only being received because the messenger was dressed up like a guru. That’s part of the point. There’s no denying the power of authoritativeness, and for the most part, Kumaré’s disciples prove his theory that you don’t really need a “spiritual leader” to achieve personal success, at least once you’ve come to realize that you shouldn’t have thought you needed one. In this way, Kumaré bears a strong resemblance to the iconic 1939 film featuring that man behind the curtain to whom you’re supposed to pay no attention. Whether Gandhi’s genuine good intentions and their results are enough to forgive him his incredible presumption at showing other regular people how to live is for each viewer to decide. Either way, the question we’re left with at the film’s end is similarly subjective, and probably even impossible to answer: which is greater in the “lie that tells the truth,” the truth or the lie?