I watched a hindi film in a theatre after a long time. The last film i watched was Don, way back in October 2006. Guru meant Mani Ratnam and Rajiv Menon's cinematography. The opulence of Dil Se is something I consistently refer to as, "just like movies are meant to look". Though I have moved from that position of unabashadly eulogising the 'look' of Dil Se, I still think it was one of the finest moments I have witnessed in my cinematic memory.
The other attributes of Mani Ratnam films that I have enjoyed in the past is the truancy of his characters (Roja, Dil Se) with who and where they fall in love. Mani Sir's sense of romance is very original and refreshing especially in the limited imagination of the Hindi film industry. Arvind Swamy shaking his damp hair to wet Madhu's shoulders in Roja and then kissing the droplets of water away or when Sandhya Mridul's character (elder sister) in Sathiya tells her younger sister Rani that if she doesnt like Vivek Oberoi, she will hook up with him. Ratnam through his characters is breaking the shibboleths of tradition and the way romance has been portrayed in Hindi cinema. There are numerous little examples like these in which many of us have exulted as well as been shocked.
Is it unfair to hold expectations from filmmakers based on their past work? Yuva, Ratnam's last hindi outing smelled and felt like a disaster to me. Exhibiting a political naivety that even mediocre filmmakers have transcended, it was a fruitless exercise, never mind the technical imitation with which the film kicks off. But despite the Yuva setback, I had and continue to have expectations from Mani Sir. I want to specify that the expectations I have are from the director but a cursory look at Guru and more specifically its star cast left me aghast.
Guru is said to be a shadow, unauthorized, simplified, suitably adapted biography of Dhribubhai Ambani. Ambani's rise if the stuff legends are made of, with the right mixture of mythmaking, hearsay, more hagiography than biography. And in a country with such low levels of literacy, this can be expected.
Ambani started out as a gas station attendent somewhere in West Asia and through small steps and later larger ones become the largest textile magnet and build a huge conglomeration of industries. Ambani's rise was despite the license permit raj (the socialist pattern of limiting development of private players and therefore a strict licensing patronage). The Reliance group of industries that Ambani developed has a reputation of bending the rules of the game, offering financial inducements to get their way around the Indian state. Essentially, the business was the most important thing and nothing else stood in the way, not morality nor ethics. I am unaware if there has been a authoritative and accurate assessment of Dhirubhai Ambani's rise specifically related to toying with the anti-business attitude of the Indian state in the pre-1992 era especially in context of the current clamour of liberalization when the government tries to make India a more business friendly state.
Moreover, in India, we have a hands-off attitude towards our public figures. It is only a few individuals who have been examined and commented upon in the manner of biographies in the west. Even when public figures pen their own biographies, there is a remarkable separation between the public and the private and the private sphere is left to rumours and myths. The other danger is your books will be burned, your house will be stoned and you will be attacked, depending upon the strength of mobilization that the subject of your biography's descendents can conjure.
Guru chronicles the life of Gurubhai Desai from his days as an employee in Turkey to the heights of power when he is put to trial before tribunal. If it sounds familiar to you, think of Martin Scorsese’s, The Aviator and you will have hit the nail on the head.
The lead characters are the ubiquitous couple Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. Mithun chakraborty in a come back to main stream cinema plays the role of an activist newspaper owner who functions as the moral voice of the film. Madhavan is Shyam Saxena who plays Mithunda's man Friday and conscientious reporter unearthing the various scams and fraud perpetrated by Gurubhai's 'bijnes'. This brings me to the basic problem in Guru, it stays where it starts, obsessed with a particular intonation of the word 'bijnes', essentially to convey Gurubhai's vernacular origins and stays with that theme of power to the masses (Gurubhai is the representation of the masses).
There is just so much one can say about a movie like Guru that it never was ambitious, neither in its star selection nor in the manner its subject was dealt with. Though, one has to admit that the subject matter in terms of chronicling the rise of a man, a businessman in this case was a fresh idea. But cutting to the meat of the film of Gurubhai's ways and means to grow his business which is what made him a controversial and interesting character. The film is ambivalent about its own stand on the issue. The moral voice or is it the statist/socialist path to development or is it modern (in terms of respect for law and order and state institutions), Mithunda is strangely anchored in a pre-1992 India, the era of the license permit raj. And then through Gurubhai's trail at the tribunal, the audience is expected to exult in Guru's triumph. So why was Mithunda working as a conscience of the film especially given the post-1992 economic system that India successfully changed over to. In presenting the case of Gurubhai, Mani Ratnam appears to be making a case in support of the liberalization regime and in that case what was Mithunda’s character doing!
I understand that Mani's sense of romance is definitely one of his crucial advantage over the run of the mill Hindi directors but in this film it comes a cropper. Personally for me there was just a little magic when Aishwarya Rai is running away from home to be with her revolutionary lover who does not show up but beyond that we actually get a formatted version of a supportive wife always by the side (literally) of Gurubhai. I haven’t known much Gujju housewives by the side of their hubby's, especially the ones with humble roots and when they climb the ladder to stardom. I would have been happier with a supportive and a traditionally Gujju characterization of Aishwarya Rai's character. But I guess it was Ratnam's lack of intimate knowledge of Gujju culture which limited that aspect.
Bachachan can only be credited with reducing what was a decent enough role to a more limited outing for him. His trademark smirk, which is used when he flirts with women, which is used when he acts cocky and go getter with his competitors, which is also used when he deals with the moral element of the film. So there is just that one look that goes round and round for Bachchan junior and his acting skills. Madhavan is someone I think who can make Shahrukh take a walk in the woods, it is a shame he isn’t used by the Hindi film people but maybe that is better for his acting skills. He has a staid and fits well into the scheme laid out.The songs were another high point of Mani Ratnam's past films but apart from the first song with Aishwarya, there is nothing really special. I would suggest people to skip this film despite the media frenzy. But if you are a brazen Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai fan, go ahead, give your stars a look and you will find enough mush to take you around and that is what the movie is about riding on the couple's star charisma.