CHAMPAIGN — When Roger Ebert first heard of the premise of "Kumare," he assumed the documentary would be a "satirical, snarky comedy" like Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat."
But not so, Ebert wrote in his August 2012 review of the movie, which will be shown at 2 p.m. Saturday as part of the 15th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre.
Instead, Ebert wrote that Vikram Gandhi, a New Jersey native who pretends to be Guru Kumare for the purposes of the documentary, "seems to be essentially a good man who learns things of value to himself in his experiment."
Ebert was right. Though Gandhi, who also directed "Kumare," now says his time as a placebo guru did not transform him from a skeptic to a nonskeptic, the experiment was "definitely one of the strangest, most interesting and mind-blowing" experiences he's ever had.
"Mostly as an artist, to take an idea and go all the way with it, affected me in many different ways," the 33-year-old filmmaker said.
As a result of making "Kumare," Gandhi, who studied religion in college but became a skeptic, particularly of spiritual leaders, said he became more open-minded and accepting of the different beliefs people hold dear.
"In the beginning, I felt very much like an outsider to the community of people I was trying to put in the film, people interested in spirituality," he said in a phone interview last week. "After having shown the movie all over the world, I found that people think in the same way I do.
"It's kind of gratifying to feel more connected to more people. I think the movie questions a lot of things that a lot of people question."
Stephen Feder, a production executive at Annapurna Pictures in Los Angeles, has seen changes in Gandhi, though, as a result of the social experiment that is "Kumare."
"He listens more than any other human being alive," said Feder, a 2002 University of Illinois alumnus. "I don't think that was always necessarily the case. Listening to what people feel and think and why people feel and think the way they do became pretty much foremost to what he is as a filmmaker and person."
Gandhi, who was immersed as a youngster in Hinduism, decided to make "Kumare" after coming to the conclusion as a young adult that yoga had become a multibillion-dollar industry and that most yogis were fakes.
He decided to become one himself for the purpose of "Kumare." He grew his dark hair and beard long, donned flowing orange robes and carried a walking stick that resembles a trident crossed with a heart.
He and his documentary film crew moved to a rented house in Phoenix, Ariz., and a couple of women began to promote him as a guru.
Guru Kumare started to teach yoga, including moves he made up — as well as fake chants and beliefs. He began to attract a core of followers, many of whom confided in him, much to his consternation.
As Guru Kumare, Gandhi also spoke English with a fake accent modeled after that of his grandmother. He dedicated "Kumare" to her.
The crew spent four months shooting the doc, part of it in India and the rest in the United States, mostly in Phoenix, where Gandhi as Guru Kumare and his crew turned their rented home basically into a guru's ashram.
They adopted an ascetic life. "We meditated in the mornings, practiced yoga every day and even before meals we did a little prayer," Gandhi said.
He never broke character or his accent, though he thinks he once accidentally spoke in a Jamaican patois. No one noticed. Gandhi said his crew was aware of the reasons "Kumare" was being made and kept him on track.
"I had a support team to discuss the film, the next step, what's working, what isn't, to keep us on message for the movie we were making," he said.
And even when Gandhi ventured outside the rented home and was off camera, he stayed in guru character, wearing his orange robes and even going barefoot.
"Phoenix at that time would be incredibly hot," Feder said. "I don't understand how he was able to walk on the asphalt. That was an experience we did not have on camera."
Other experiences not on camera included Guru Kumare shopping at a Trader Joe's.
"Someone would approach him and break down while Kumare was looking at fruit," Feder related. "They were so overcome by his presence, without him saying anything. It was very remarkable — the response we would get even off camera."
"Kumare" is Gandhi's first film as a director. After he graduated from Columbia University, where he majored in literature, he worked for a year at an Internet company.
He soon realized he wanted to be out in the field, shooting films. He bought a small camera and began doing freelance work.
"I was very much DIY," he said.
He's now working on getting out his next movie, a feature; he said it's too early to talk about it. Otherwise, he worked as a producer on segments shot in Asia for "Vice," an HBO show that recently premiered. It airs at 10 p.m. Fridays.
Its makers call it a harbinger of a new age in documentary programming.
Like "Kumare," which won the 2011 SXSW Film Festival audience award for best documentary feature, it crosses genres, Gandhi said.