My wife and I saw a rather astonishing documentary last week called Kumaré. It follows the exploits of filmmaker/provocateur Vikram Gandhi as he adopts the guise of a bogus guru (the titular Kumaré) and attempts to acquire followers and inspire religious devotion in them. The experiement succeeds almost too well, with emotions becoming entangled and Gandhi just about losing himself in the process.
Kumaré is an enthralling movie that is also more than a little uncomfortable to watch. We the viewers get to play voyeur to some very personal moments. Spiritual intimacy is the final frontier of the "reality" genre, well beyond the surface-level drama typically on display in The Bachelor and Jersey Shore. Souls are on the line here. Fortunately, Gandhi has a light touch with his subjects. I shudder to imagine what Sacha Baron Cohen might have done in this situation.
Kumaré engenders discomfort for other reasons as well: no one can doubt the sincerity and intensity of the mystical experiences captured in the film, yet the instigator of these experiences is fake. Does that revelation negate said experiences in retrospect? The answer seems to be no, which opens a giant can of worms. The viewer is left wondering at what point religious ecstasy strays into delusion, and whether all spiritual belief is simply the projection onto an external object (the guru, Jesus, God) of our deepest conflicts and desires. The film opens this topic for discussion but does not provide resolution. Ironically, Kumaré--a self-described false prophet--may have been more authentic than many "real" gurus: during his ministry he took no money from his followers, did not engage with them sexually, and dispensed a core philosophy that he (that is, Vikram Gandhi) truly believed in: that people should trust in themselves and become their own gurus. Employing this equation renders the role of the much-vaunted Eastern guru superfluous. Interestingly, this was also the core teaching of J. Krishnamurti: another manufactured guru who ended up becoming a real one.
Of course the elephant in the room is the issue of exploitation. Each of these Borat-style films ups the ante in terms of subterfuge and gasp-factor. In the most extreme instances we get our entertainment at the expense of the unwitting victims' careers and reputations. Kumaré may be the product of a relatively benevolent, playful manipulator, but we can't always count on that being the case. What comes next?