My favorite type of adaptation is where you take a beautiful jigsaw puzzle and rearrange its pieces to create a new picture that is at once the same as and different than the original intended picture! The Wachowskis do more than that with their adaptation of Cloud Atlas. They take six completely different jigsaw puzzle sets, and combine them into one perfectly interlocked farrago. You can either reassemble the fragments of the different sets in your head into their individual stories, or think of them as a single harmonized unit, where all the sets coalesce to form a continuous whole!
To make such an adaptation, one needs to make sure all the existing puzzle pieces perfectly interlock and tessellate with each other in spite of being rearranged! The shape of each piece in relation to the others is therefore important in order to find the perfect placement!
The six stories in this movie look incompatible, completely opposed in character, like they belong to different worlds. The stories are set in the past, present, future and distant future, in many different places all over the world. The characters too move from story to story, and morph themselves into many other characters, oftentimes even changing gender and race. So your job as the audience is to suss out the differences and commonalities in their different personalities, and place them in context of the larger message that the soul transcends time and space. When you finally see them fit together seamlessly, it becomes clear that every instance in the world is comparable, analogous and homologous with every other!
In the plant world, epiphytes are plants that live on other plants or objects, not as parasites but by gainfully deriving nutrients or support from them! In the phone and tablet world, one might think of mobile apps as epiphytes that depend on the technology they are on to be operative! In Cloud Atlas, the Wachowskis create an epiphyte-like narrative structure, where each story impels the other stories forward, as their scenes play out alternately, propagating their motive into each other. In this way, we move forward, while also being kept continually on edge with multiple cliffhangers throughout the movie. The cumulative effect of all this anxious uncertainty, is the equivalent of watching six completely different period-suspense films at once that also have profound philosophies behind them. It is a multitudinous mental exercise! Not to mention, how every story, however fantastical, is in fact disturbingly real.
Kumaré is a documentary film about an Indian American who pretends to be a spiritual guru from a fictional village in India. He attracts a retinue of followers who are emotionally fragile from various distressing life experiences, and are looking for comfort and healing. The followers find value in his fabricated teachings inspired by Zen Buddhism, adopt his philosophy and are on the mend. Eventually, he reveals his true self to them and the fact that they were his unwitting guinea pigs, and leaves us to contemplate the message.
This brings me to dwell on the ethical problems of this social experiment, and whether it is okay to mislead vulnerable people to satisfy one's own curiosity about what inspires them to seek spiritual leaders and join a cult; especially given the fact that they invested a lot of their time and faith on this man. Your appreciation for this documentary rests on this question, and the verdict is still out.
I saw a man making his opinion known about the fakeness of spiritual enlightenment at the expense of skewering people's faith, and humiliating already dispirited people seeking help. The filmmaker meant to reveal that a lot of what followers think is coming from spiritual healers is in fact coming from within themselves; His intention may therefore be harmless but this experiment seemed like too high a price to pay just to ratify his personal beliefs; and in fact to no other purpose, even if he felt like he was able to connect to people more deeply as a fake guru than as his real self. It also makes light of the fact that there are spiritual leaders who lead austere and venerable lives that are guided by deep philosophies. Not all of Indian spirituality is commodified even in the West; and the line between being inspired by spiritual leaders and being fixated on them is not always apparent to an observer, as much as it is to the people going through that experience.
On the positive side, I saw a healing process, as people submitted to a spiritual teacher with an open mind and took real action to better their lives. It takes courage to seek help (be it spiritual or medical). If you liken spiritual healers to psychologists or counsellors, would it have been acceptable for this filmmaker to pretend to be a doctor and pull a fast one on his convalescing patients? Also, would this very same experiment have been possible in Hollywood among celebrities who are the biggest evangelists of Eastern spirituality in America. I have a feeling getting them to honor their release forms granting permission to use their footage after they learnt that they were hoodwinked would have been near impossible.
If there was little collateral damage at the end of this experiment, it is a testament to the purity of these people who took this in good spirit (at least most of them); and to Vikram Gandhi's ability to stay in character throughout the process and genuinely connect with them. It was evident that he and his followers saw this as a spiritually fulfilling experience in some way, at least for as long as the facade lasted.
This got me thinking about where Kumaré fits within the different documentary modes that Bill Nichols talks about (See wiki). The filmmaker doesn't spoonfeed us with his thoughts, but the overall rhetoric of the documentary is allusively expository and leads our observations and thoughts in a certain direction. The filmmaker directly interacts with subjects, but because he does so in disguise, as a fictional character in the real world, it is both participative and performative. And as we find ourselves observing the followers and Kumaré's personal growth, it becomes a reflexive experience for both him and us. That is five of the six modes that Nichols talks about; the sixth being the poetic mode, and there is nothing poetic about dupery, especially if there is no poetic justice in the end!
This is a funny Wired talk with the film director, Vikram Gandhi a.k.a. Kumaré on the making of the film.