A scene from "Kumare." (Kino Films )
An elaborate prank gives way to genuine connection in the new documentary "Kumaré," a sort of kinder, gentler "Borat."
Vikram Gandhi, the movie's director and central figure, is a lapsed Hindu from New Jersey who had seen his fair share of swindler swamis and couldn't understand the West's infatuation with all things yoga. His investigative project turned into an extended piece of performance art, with an unsuspecting audience, after he adopted the persona of a spiritual teacher and developed a following.
As an inquiry into the matter of faith, especially New Age orthodoxy, "Kumaré" is neither exposé nor celebration, but a provocation. Yet even as Gandhi plays both sides against the middle — especially when, in the film's climactic nail-biter, he unveils his true identity — he shapes an absorbing portrait of modern-day seekers and the ways that some people do need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Settling in Phoenix, Gandhi became the mellow, bearded yogi Sri Kumaré, teaching made-up chants and meditations and delivering homilies just vague enough to sound wise. His core group of suburban middle-class students — among them a death penalty attorney and a reformed addict — respond to his "pure aura," even as Kumaré repeatedly tells them he's a fake, a statement that they interpret at poetic, not face, value.
The camera captures Gandhi's discomfort, and his compassion, when followers confide in him. The most surprising aspect of his tangled web is not the fruitfulness of the lessons but that they affect the skeptical guru at least as much as his students.
"Kumaré." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At the Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles.