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​Screening Religion: "Kumaré" by Vikram Gandhi

Sri Kumaré is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people. Now, he is conflicted -- can he unveil the truth to these disciples with whom he has spent so much time, and who now look to him for guidance?

Vikram takes us back to where his story began. From an early age, he questioned the meaning of religion and spirituality. Was it all just make believe, or was there something real beyond the realm of our understanding? As a young adult, Vikram found himself perplexed that, just as he was leaving his Hindu faith behind, America was embracing Indian spirituality in the form of yoga studios and gurus who claimed to be on a higher spiritual plane. When he began filming these gurus for a documentary, he discovered there was nothing special about who they were or what they did -- they were no more holy than anyone else. In order to prove this, Vikram decides to transform himself into one of them: Sri Kumaré, a guru of his own creation. If he can build a following as Kumaré, wouldn’t it demonstrate that spiritual authenticity is just an illusion that wecreate? So he grows out his hair and beard, acquires the bells and whistles of Indian mystics, affects an accent, and transforms himself into the wise Indian Guru Kumaré.

Kumaré sets off to Phoenix, Arizona to build a following. He takes with him two disciples -- Kristen to teach yoga and Purva to book events -- who will become Kumaré’s first followers and greatest public messengers. At first it is easier than he imagined -- everywhere he goes, people revere him because of how he looks and behaves, despite his lack of a substantive teaching. When people ask to be blessed, Vikram invents a blessing and starts to deliver it: a blue light that he imagines in his head and shoots out onto people, with their foreheads pressed against his. Then something amazing happens. People really start to feel the blue light. It might be something Vikram made up, but it’s very real to those who experience it.

More and more people begin showing up to his events, and soon a core group of devoted students emerge. The powers and temptations of being a Guru soon become clear to Vikram. But it is all fun and games until people start to put serious faith in him -- and pour their hearts out to him. Vikram finds that if he isn't careful, he might just overstep his bounds and significantly change the course of his disciples' lives in ways that are beyond his control. What can he say when a woman comes to him for advice about whether to leave her husband, or when a former drug addict begins to look to upon him as a role model? Would they feel the same way about Vikram that they do about Kumare?

If Vikram is really going to push Kumaré to his infinite potential, he’ll need to teach something he believes with his entire being. He builds his teaching around the one thing he feels strongly about: that his disciples don’t need a guru -- that the guru is inside each of us. He calls his teaching The Mirror -- Kumaré is only a mirror that people can use to gaze upon their own infinite potential, which is already deep inside themselves. Kumaré begins to proclaim this message, and all who hear it are receptive. At the same time, something happens which Vikram could never have anticipated: for the first time he starts to feel the blue light himself.

Vikram forms deep attachments to many of these students, but all the while he wonders why he had to take on this other persona just to connect with people? Vikram makes a promise to himself: soon he will unveil his true identity to his disciples in order to prove his point. He spends more time with his disciples relating to them one-on-one and teaching them to embrace their gurus within. He asks them each to make promises to themselves -- whether it’s following through on promises to a loved one, committing to a healthier diet, or learning how to respect themselves. Vikram is awed when his students take his guidance very seriously, and he starts to see them making the first steps towards positive changes in their lives.

By the time he is to unveil, Vikram realizes why other gurus don't unveil themselves: he cares too much for his disciples who have now made serious and substantial changes to improve their lives, and they claim it is all because of Kumaré. When Kumaré reveals his greatest teaching of all: his true self, the reaction will shock, surprise, and even inspire all who see it.

 17 July, 7-9 p.m.

Venue: Café Alibi (Beethovenstraße 6)