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.)