Film and TV

The probing Kumare chronicles a joke turned serious

Prepare to have your assumptions pitched out the window by this tense, surprisingly probing satirical documentary — and not just those about religious longing and "spirituality," its ostensible subjects, but about how deep the genre that gave us Borat and Morgan Spurlock's spotty oeuvre can go. Kumaré is essentially the chronicle of a joke turned serious: Director-star Vikram Gandhi, a middle-class Indian-American from New Jersey, transforms a faltering doc project debunking bogus gurus (a couple of whom make it into the final cut, to their everlasting detriment) into an immersive lark when he assumes the movie's titular persona. A shaggy baba complete with gob-smacked gaze, impenetrable accent and questionable underwear, Kumaré attracts a following among the new-age-curious in southern Arizona despite an arsenal of idiotic fake-yoga moves and half-gibberish koans, as well as frequent and open admissions of his fraudulence. Incredibly, Gandhi forms a genuine, mutually enriching bond with these apostles, which serves his thesis — that no single person or belief system has a lock on the cosmic and that we're all seekers in our own way — rather than exposes it as Michael Moore-style overstatement or smug posturing à la Bill Maher's hateful Religulous. It helps that Kumaré's "teachings" are bolstered by Gandhi's strict Hindu upbringing, obvious real-yoga expertise and the memory of his devout grandmother. His refusal to make the yogi's diverse adepts (including a stressed-out death row attorney and a lonely single mom) look foolish or pathetic shows uncommon, admirable restraint, too. Whether Kumaré's happy alignment of cinematic inspiration and philosophical awakening is simply a feat of editing remains open, and the element of racial pandering in its teacher/student dynamic goes entirely unaddressed, but the white-knuckle climax in which the newly shorn filmmaker reveals his inner Garden State-er to team Kumaré is incredibly moving all the same.

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Mark Holcomb