Polyester vs. Khadi: Guru


Last year it was Rang de Basanti and Omkara…. now, before the  second week of January 2007 is over, we have  Guru.  

Three films, all less slapstick and fanciful than, say, Phir Hera Pheri or Chup Chup Ke, more real, yet still with the vibrant song picturizations and visual lyricism that so many look forward to in mainstream Hindi movies.  

Two years since his Yuva (or Three Dots, as the spine of my Thamizh CD says; talk about literal!), Mani Ratnam has given us this story of a man for whom the phrase “low self-esteem” would not register.  

Gurukant Desai first appears  as  a restless young boy in Gujurat, who can’t pass his math exams, and sets off for Istanbul, unibrow in tow,  and where he works for several years.   Upon being offered a big promotion at  a foreign multinational, he turns it down, reasoning “Why should I work for this white man?   I’ll work myself.”

Back in Gujurat, he decides to go to Bombay to work in “bijness”, more specifically the fabric bijness, but needs some  capital to get started and marries Sujatha (Aishwarya Rai),  the sister of his childhood friend and partner,  for a tidy Rs. 25,000.   From here, the story is about his rise, and his locking horns with the owner of a major newspaper, who tries to bring him down.

Guru bets his luck on this new fabric, kela silk (polyester) and backs a winner.  

Mithun Chakraborty plays Dasgupta, the newspaper owner who is initially  charmed by Gurukant’s can-do sense of confidence, but later grows to resent his success.   As Guru’s  nemesis, this  subtly sinister yet also grandfatherly man becomes  a khadi-wearing Charles Foster Kane of sorts (“You provide the prose poems – I’ll provide the war”), who uses his paper to  pursue Guru, bending the rules of ethical  journalism himself, while accusing Gurukant Desai of all sorts of corporate tomfoolery.

Unlike most Hindi movies, Mani Ratnam shows us Gurubhai’s increasing  wealth not with  the usual massive, marble-floored home with the sweeping curves of a dramatically long staircase in a grand hall, but rather through the Merc that the Desais drive, and Sujatha’s saris, jewelry and grand, industrialist matron hairdoes.   (By the way, note the  license plate in this shot.)

Ash’s costumes before Guru’s income soars are lovely too.   If, in Kandukondain, Kandukondain, we mainly remember her in the  cool blues and emerald greens of the Kannamoochi number, and later in Devdas, in that classic still of her as the wealthy married woman in a rich peacock blue sari, thick  ingot of sindoor on her part, moon-sized bindi and fantastically heavy jewelry, as the young Sujatha she has been dressed in shades of plum, saffron and maroon cotton saris.

In the fantasy part of the picturization of Tere Bina, Ash is at a palace.   As the sky behind her turns dusk and she dances in a glittery pale cream-colored ensemble, it is lit in such a way that it seems the light is not being shone on Ash for the shot, but rather that the light is actually emanating forth from her.

If there’s a secret to looking younger, Mani’s hit on it in this film, having his boy Madhavan lose weight.   The difference is dramatic; Maddie looks like a guy barely in his 20s.  

On the subject of never looking too young or too thin, The Most Beautiful Manglik in the World (TMBMITW) had already shed some weight for Dhoom 2, and  while she’s definitely not bronzed as she was in Brazil,  the lost weight makes her look years younger than her fiancé, in spite of the fact that she’s actually 33, and older than AB 2.0 by 2.something years.

Abhi’s own physical transformation is remarkable.   As he becomes the bade industrialist, he grows into the role, literally.   Just after the interval, Guru  exits the shower and finds a pregnant Sujatha looking at her profile in a full-length mirror, lamenting her expanding belly.   In a moment of husbandly empathy, he stands next to her, also in profile, and allows his own hairy gut to expand and spill over the top of the towel, protruding as far as his wife’s.   Aside from the shock of seeing Abhishek in this state, it is a sweet scene, where Mani portrays their genuine  domestic comfort with each other.   This is the only of the four onscreen Abhiwarya pairings where they have had any spark between them at all.    In the scenes of their early marriage,  they appear at ease  when touching each other.   I attribute that to Ash’s celluloid thaw, as her betrothed was beautifully physical as Lallan in Yuva, in the Kabhi Neem Neem song picturization in particular.  

Some critics have questioned the point of the roles of Madhavan and Vidya Balan.   He’s Shyam Saxena, a reporter at Dasgupta’s paper, she is  Dasgupta’s granddaughter, Meenu.  

Meenaxi  begins in the film as a little girl with a limp, who Guru always fusses over affectionately when he visits, and as she grows into a beautiful young woman, her multiple sclerosis forces her into a wheelchair, but Meenu maintains  a smile and attitude that masks her struggles with the illness.  

Shyam is sent to do Dasgupta’s bidding against Guru, and throughout he enjoys being the terrier at the heels of the magnate, with ever bigger gotcha moments in newsprint.   He finds himself linked to Guru through Meenu, who he falls in love with and wants to marry.   The couple actually share a kiss in one scene, and their relationship, like Guru and Sujatha’s, reflects a man and woman whose love gives them the conviction to  support each other, without any second thoughts.   (At one point, Guru says to Sujatha “If you’re with me, I can beat the world.”   I’m guessing a better translation might be “conquer” or “take on”, but this is how it appears onscreen.)   To me, it seems that Shyam and Meenu are there to  look at Guru with different eyes, and  give us a sense of the shades of grey.

And leave it to Mani Ratnam to even do an item number well.  

Early in the film, in Istanbul, when Gurukant goes out with his friends to a club to celebrate their success, they  see Mallika Sherawat perform a filmi sort of bellydance.   It looks like no expense was spared on her gold and red bejewelled costume, leaving the poor background dancers  to shimmy behind her in the cheapest-looking outfits I’ve seen in a Hindi movie in a while, more reminiscent of  synthetic Halloween costumes from Wal-Mart than anything you’d expect here.   I know there’s an element of that bride/bridesmaid dynamic here, where you don’t want anyone to outshine the bride on her big day, but still, at least put the girls in something that compliments the centre of attention.

All that said, Mallika looks luscious, seductive and brighter  than her Hotsy Totsy image allows us to believe.

I know this is running long, but bear with me a minute or two more…because I have to stop to praise Rajiv Menon.   The cinematography in Guru is lovely.   Not in the sense that everything is pretty all the time, though, to be sure, the camera adores  Aishwarya, and she is a joy to watch, especially in the picturization of Barso Re, where she is fresh and full of energy and hope for the future.   There is a beautiful frame, when Sujatha discovers something about Guru that angers her so much she returns to her family home, and as the two stand on the street near their apartment in Bombay, a tram drives past, separating them.   Well done, Mr. Menon.

And so what does it all mean?   What is Mani Sir trying to show?   I saw  some shots this week of AVS and man-on-the-street interviews with people exiting the  premiere and  one woman said that  Guru, the character, was very inspirational, and I thought “Hang on, you mean, as in, we should all be like Guru?”   At the press conference last week Mani Ratnam spoke of using the character of Gurukant Desai to trace the trajectory of India, in “the period just after  independence, of dreams and values that were very different than today.”  

I don’t think it’s entirely the hagiography some people are taking it to be.   Rather, I think the movie is a commentary on the ability and energy and confidence of people to succeed, but there’s also a point about how man can use the resources at hand in an unchecked grab for power, members of the fourth estate included.   Mithun’s character is like  Gandhi-era khadi, Abhi’s the more recent,  now-ubiquitous, polyester.    

One final note: did anyone else find Abhi reminded them of a young Al Pacino (circa The first Godfather) during this part of the film?

See it or skip it?

See it.   Aside from  possibly  one  more number than needed – the Ek Lo Ek Muft bhaang song – it’s a fast-moving story, told with loving attention to period detail (safari suits!   aviator eyeglass frames! even the Bombay Baroda & Central India train line) and with two lead actors who’ve  matured nicely, thank you very much.  

And Rosh Seth  arrives at the very end,  like a light sorbet after an appetizing and filling meal.   (It’s lovely to hear him speak  Hindi; what a beautiful voice.)  

23 thoughts on “Polyester vs. Khadi: Guru

  1. Hi Yves,

    Thanks! And thanks for stopping by.

    I thought she was better in this movie than I’ve seen her in anything in a long time; less strained, less chilly, more natural.

  2. Hi Maria,

    In fact I’m just jotting this down to say i’m enjoying your blog! Hum, about Aishwarya Rai, would you mind telling me what you think?
    I’ll also try and “do” something on Mani Ratnam soon.

  3. Someone told me there was a lot of The Aviator in the movie.

    As for the brother character and the Vidya & Madhavan characters, you have to know some of the background to the Ambani & Goenka saga, though Mithun’s character seems to be a combination of Goenka and Arun Shourie. Madhavan is Gurumurthy.

    If you know some of the (inside) story of Reliance, the script follows it rather very closely. There is a big retrospective whitewashing effort, in my book, Ambani was brilliant, but still a crook.

  4. This is about your comment on one of the photos (“By the way, note the license plate in this shot.”)

    This picture is one of those taken on the sets in Chennai and is not part of the official movie stills. That’s why you see TN (Tamil Nadu) in the number plate and also a modern car in the foreground.

  5. Thanks, DG. I also thought it interesting that the character of Guru not only disobeys his father’s wishes, but he goes on to prove with his success that his father was wrong. I guess if one wanted to do some armchair psychoanalysis, one could suppose that Mithunda’s character became a surrogate father for Guru, and the two men’s opposition to each other was the separation that most fathers and sons go through when the son grows up an asserts himself…


    Krishna, thanks for stopping by. About the ending, do you think that perhaps Mani had it that way so as to show how (to his dismay) even members of the judiciary are prone to worrying about public opinion (a la when Seth says to the other members, in effect, “Well, we can’t crucify him now, can we?”) and give him just a slap on the wrist instead.

  6. Lovely dissection – I think it stands to reason that someone like DA can’t be picturized on screen without using generous doses of sepia. There is a greater case to be made for the balance shown.

    But did he have to be made a demi-god at the end? I am pretty sure this issue has been raised already – but it is very very pertinent. I think someone gave in to temptation there – after carefully treading the middle ground until then.

  7. Thanks for a very interesting review and great pictures. I just saw this move yesterday, and it’s interesting how 2 people can see the same movie and take totally different impressions away. I saw the characters differently, especially Mithun’s character, who I didn’t see as resentful but more just frustrated and disillusioned; but I can totally understand and appreciate your views. There probably was some resentment there.
    I agree that, for once, the chemistry was ‘there’ between Abhishek and Aishwarya… and you’re right, she’s definitely thawing. This is the first role I’ve really loved seeing her take on.
    And I definitely agree that Ratnam hasn’t made a hagiographic film. In my view, Guru is not a perfect hero or an aspirational ideal, he’s very much a ‘real’ man… and I think Ratnam went to some length to show that Guru has his issues. Yes, he has the ‘courage’ to pursue his dreams – something worth emulating; but it would be a shame to miss all the complexity and depth Ratnam tried to give the character… and which I think Abhishek interpreted beautifully.
    Abhishek is great in this movie… I think comparisons to his father are inevitable, because as you say, he looks and sounds like him – but I do think he is very distinct as an actor. Watching ‘Guru’, I felt like Abhishek was able to display his very different ‘style’ (for want of a better word) as an actor, while remaining his father’s son in sound and appearance. I think he’s finally carving a niche for himself – and not as an Amitabh clone (AB 2.0), just as Abhishek. Good on him.

  8. Thanks, Joseph.

    One thing those Rotten Tomatoes guys got wrong are the credits over the poster on the left…. instead of Master Bachchan, it says “John Abraham”!

    Appreciate the suggestion, will have to see, a lot on my plate at the moment….

  9. Hey Maria,

    Here are some Mainstream ‘Phoren’ Reviews of ‘guru’. The one ‘Rotten’ review is of a different Movie ‘The Guru’ with Heather Graham, Marisa Tomei & jimi Mistry(A pathetic Film)–Otherwise this 2007 Guru has 100% positive reviews from these various ‘Phoren’ Critics. Sorry Maria—being an ‘Honorary Indian’ you don’t count as Phoren! (Lol)


    P.S: You should write to this website and have your reviews published for the Bolly-crossover stuff. Will get you more traffic——no? There’s a way you can become an approved reviewer.

    1. I love Abhishek too 🙂 and Kannathil is my alltime frvuoaite movie also. In fact watched it yesterday and it can still turn on the waterworks for me :)I will wait for the CD of this movie, not sure if I want to shell out moolah after all the interesting reviews 🙂

  10. Hey BA, you and any dissenting opinions you might have are more than welcome here. I’m always glad to discuss a difference of opinion with a friend. 🙂

    And yes, Nayagan has indeed struck a chord with a lot of folks.

  11. Them might be fighting words, but I also said sorry for my dissent ! I know you’re a big Mani Ratnam fan, so I’m already wary ! Actually, yes, I found the story lacking, but then that’s a feeling I had with Dil Se and Yuva (yes, I can see the horror on your face, sorry again for the dissent!). Anyways, lets just leave it here, because I think the bottom line is that it was a very enjoyable movie – and we both agree on that !.

    PS – can’t help but notice how many people here – and I think in other parts of the sphere – keep saying “not as good as Nayakan!”..I think I agree with that as well !

  12. Thanks for that explanation about yuva/dots, I had no idea about any of it!
    Re. “what to do” about the AB Jr/Sr similarities – I say sit back and enjoy 😉

    I agree about the brother being substandard, I didn’t miss him at all when he disappeared

  13. Thank you, Joseph. Yes, will definitely bear it in mind. Had we seen the film before the press conference, not after, I definitely would have raised the issue.

    I remember Nayagan being terribly bleak, but I was also watching it at a rather bleak time in life, and there’s nothing more depressing than watching a downer of a movie when you’re already down. Whenever I hear a particular song from that film it always takes me back right away. Have to give it a second dekho.

    Someone on Film Cafe at the BBC Asian Network raised the same point about the brother and Guru’s father, how they just vanished. Then again, with the brother, I guess they didn’t want anyone too strong in the role opposite Abhi, since he was only going to be in the film for a short period of time and a specific purpose.

    The one actor who was interesting was the guy who played the Parsi fabricwallah. He had more presence, but then, he had a bigger role.

  14. Hey Maria,
    Excellent review! Very detailed and thorough. The subtitles were indeed terrible–none for the songs–wazzup with that?! If filmmakers are indeed trying to make ‘crossover’ films then why not shell out just a little extra money to have accurate and effective subtitles—It baffles me –talk about being penny-wise and pound foolish.Many next time you do one of these Press conferences you can bring this up–for everyone’s benefit?!

    This was really an excellent movie–although nowhere close to ‘nayagan’ (Which I recently watched on DVD W/excellent and much-needed subtitles –I don’t understand Tamil) , fast-paced and generally very entertaining.Also a very difficult Movie to make and also an original and novel idea for a movie rather than a lame underworld-gangster movie or an equally irritating ‘love Story’.My favorite scene was the one just before the interval where Mithun Chakraborty and Madhavan effectively declare ‘War’ on Gurubhai and he accepts their challenge——The operatic background music reaches a crescendo just as Guru leaves the room and the audience is left wanting more in the 2nd half.The only glaring flaws in the movie were the timing of ‘Ek Lo Ek Muft’ and the casting of Ash’s brother(Arya babbar)—he was pretty substandard(Where’d he disappear after the Tram-scene anyways?)

  15. Hi Maja, thanks! “Yuva” does mean youth in Hindi, but the title of the movie in Tamil is actually a rarely used letter of the Tamil alphabet which is, literally, three dots (two on the bottom, one on top, like a little pyramid or triangle) and is called “Aayitha Ezhuthu” (as spelled on the Madras Talkies website, though I’ve also seen it written in other ways, ending with an “e”, etc.). As you’d guess from the look of the letter, it fits nicely with the trilogy of stories.

    I’ve read the same things about the son acting too much like the father and really, when he looks and sounds so much like him, I don’t see how he can totally get away from that, except in caricatures like the slimy fixer at the Taj Mahal in Bunty aur Babli. Barring an accident, he’ll always have that booming deep voice and tall frame, so what to do?

    In terms of how he carried himself as Guru, I didn’t see a similarity. I see AB Sr. as more self contained, more tightly wound in the AYM roles he did.

  16. Sorry, I knew I forgot to add something else. I’ve read a few reviews where people said that Abhishek’s performance in this film was too similar to his father. Do you agree? I don’t think I’ve seen enough of Amitabh’s movies so far to be able to judge.

  17. Ahh, now this was definitely worth the wait!
    I agree with you about Shyam and Meenu’s characters, I did wonder at first during the movie why exactly they’re there, but they do give you a different perspective of Guru. And that bit with the tram driving between Guru and Sujatha was one of my favourite parts of the movie, in addition to when they’re in bed and they starting poking and hitting each other playfully, that was adorable. And of course the court sequence – having seen Seth’s name in the opening credits, I waited for the entire movie for him to finally appear on screen! It was great to see him again, and especially hear him speak Hindi.

    (Does “yuva” mean dots, then? I always thought it meant “youth” or something like that, oops!)

  18. Ooooh BA, thems fightin’ words! Do you mean that you found the story implausible or just lacking?

    TL, interesting. It’s been two years since I saw Nayagan and I must watch it again one day, because I don’t have a strong enough sense of Kamal during that time, only of his character in the early part of the film and the end. Then again, when I watched it, I had a lot on my mind at the time…

  19. did anyone else find Abhi reminded them of a young Al Pacino (circa The first Godfather) during this part of the film?

    He reminded me of Kamal in Nayakan.

  20. Nice write-up as always Maria.

    Just one small point – and do forgive me for my dissent – the “loving attention to period detail” probably came at the cost of no attention to the story and characters and hence a farce of a denoument.

    Yet, it was such a rich and plush movie visually (thanks to, and as you correctly point out, Mr. Menon) that, and I daresay in true Mani Ratnam style, you’re left in awe of the movie and BB2.0 rather than delve on other mundane aspects.

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