GURU . Director: Mani Ratnam. Players. Mithun Chakraborty, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Roshan Seth. Music: A.R. Rahman.
A filmmaker whose passion for filmmaking shines through every frame of a movie is rare. Mani Ratnam, whose best works (Roja, Bombay) were celebrated both for their artistic prowess as well as their political subtext, dives into yet another topic that has raised eyebrows in some circles. That the film is a self-proclaimed—and decidedly fictitious—rags-to-riches story says as much about the state of filming as a stagecraft circa 2007 as it does about a gifted filmmaker. When the dust settles and the end credits roll, what Ratnam delivers is a magnificent character study of one overachiever’s rise from obscurity to immense wealth.
Despite its passing resemblance to the life of the late American billionaire Howard Hughes and that of certain members of India’s super-wealthy Ambani clan, Guru remains a self-proclaimed work of fiction. Gurukant Desai (Bachchan) exhibits traits of a far-reaching vision growing up as a schoolmaster’s son in rural Gujarat in the 1950s. He moves to Bombay, where he is disillusioned by the way power is brokered in Bombay’s bustling textile trade in the late 1950s. Guru ascends rapidly, and along the way finds time to romance and marry Sujata (Rai), who shares his rebellious streak.
The story of Guru’s rise from a nobody to a self-made tycoon would be lost in a cultural translation from a “regional” Gujarat feel to a “universal” Bombay-centered dominion. In Ratnam’s hands, however, excruciatingly accurate period details—a rural Gujarati schoolroom lined with period-specific wall writings, a vibrant cabaret den in Istanbul, a clean, sun-drenched sidewalk used by dog-walkers on Bombay’s gold coast—greatly enhance the narrative. The most unusual aspect to Guru’s character is his relationship with Manik Gupta (Chakraborty, simply superb), a newspaper editor who emerges as Guru’s personal mentor and—strangely enough—professional nemesis. Ratnam’s intelligent handling of the Guru-Gupta rivalry unfolds fascinatingly. His relationship with Gupta inadvertently prepares Guru for his biggest hurdle after anti-trust Indian regulators—led by a polished Seth—land Guru in the crossfire of a financial scandal.
The A.R. Rahman-Mani Ratnam two-decade- long collaborative caravan pitches a grand tent here. From Shreya Ghosal’s playful “barso re” to Maryem Toller and Chinmayee’s sizzling cabaret entry “mayya,” Rahman plays with formulaic (for him) outlines that are special just the same. Rahman saves his best, however, for the vaguely ecclesiastic “tere bina.” Dedicated to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and ruefully rendered by Rahman and Chinmayee, this tune works both as a standalone song of longing and as a divine chant (take your pick).
As the first Hindi box-office hit of 2007, Guru became a milestone for a completely different reason. Guru’s certification as a box-office hit also coincided with the announcement of Abshishek Bachchan’s engagement to Aishwarya Rai. Two star luminaries at the peak of their popularity getting married is a milestone indeed. Here’s wishing “Abhiash” the best!
Aniruddh Chawda writes from Wisconsin, on America’s north coast.