Sunday, January 14, 2007

Guru

I usually take a great share of merit in Mani Ratnam films for granted. Like in Aayidha Ezhuthu, I was quite underwhelmed considering it came from Mani Ratnam. It was naïve, idealistic, I complained. But, when a Selvaraghavan goes on and on, taking almost the whole of Pudhupettai’s running time to establish a gangster for what he is – a ruthless man who will go to any end to preserve himself, I couldn’t help but recall how amazingly Mani Ratnam establishes the same in a few sequences in Aayidha Ezhuthu with characteristic ease and great restraint.
As everyone knows, Guru is about the life of a man who rose from his humble beginnings to a business tycoon, one of biggest national icons, with close parallels to such a real-life personality, Dhirubhai Ambani. Somehow, I didn’t have any great expectations on Guru. The rather pedestrian caption – “Villager, Visionary and A Winner” – didn’t help much either. As I read in some interviews of Mani Ratnam that the intent was to chronicle the times of our nation post-independence in terms of social outlook and progress, I got hooked to it.
And, it turned out to be an enjoyable film of his sensibilities, in his inimitable style. In short, Mani Ratnam in form.

Guru is probably the strongest case, in Indian film history, of showcasing unreserved, all-out self-interest as a virtue. And, this depiction of a protagonist who’s so full of self-interest is one of foremost things I loved in the film. The way the lead character of Gurukant Desai (Abhishek Bachchan in his career-best effort) is conceived and established seamlessly is worth mentioning here. He’s unabashedly capitalistic, completely munafa-oriented. He marries Sujata (Aishwarya Rai) because of the dowry he’ll get in the process will help him setup his first business venture. When Sujata comes to know of it, he doesn’t deny it. That’s what he is, and he is unapologetic about it. And, in his view, this is in no way related to his love for his wife.
He holds no grudges whatsoever against those who despise this trait in him. (“Ab pair padoon, kya?” he asks his brother-in-law-cum-partner, when he accuses him of one for whom money means everything, rather than making his stance.) Much like Mani Ratnam himself, he’s naturally non-judgemental and all he means is bijiness. And, when it comes to bijiness, he has such an air of superiority around himself and he doesn’t quite consider anyone as a rival at any level, in any sense except when it comes to munafa.
Guru chances upon a Gandhian media baron, Nanaji (Mithun Chakraborty), who develops great affection towards Guru and whom Guru thinks of as a father figure. Nanaji consequently becomes instrumental in Guru’s rise up the ladder. When Nanaji later turns against Guru (his affection for Guru notwithstanding), after he comes to know that Guru had exploited his newspaper for his business prospects, he turns very critical of his unethical ways and employs an energetic investigative journo, Shyam Saxena (Madhavan), to expose his unethical and illegal ways. And, like in Iruvar [1], Mani Ratnam shows finesse in depicting this conflict between these two who’ve great affection for each other. Any lesser filmmaker would take the easy path diligently exposing the ugly side of the protagonist from a moral perspective. But, Mani Ratnam puts them on an even pedestal and wonders if all is fine with the intent and the means one takes to nail down the other.
But, Guru actually is, in many ways, a throwback to Nayagan. Yes, it doesn’t surely scale up to the other in its merit, but it’s hard to miss the similarity in the structures and the protagonists of the two films. It’s strikingly visible in the deliciously well made scene of Guru paying a visit to Shyam’s house only to find that he’s married to Meenu (Vidya Balan), with whom he shares a special relationship; in the scene where a young Guru before he makes it big barges in to the city collector’s (an unidentifiable Prathap Pothen) house with all his cotton goods to give an apt rejoinder to his shutting down the market place of theirs; and in the courtroom penultimate scene. Also, just like in Nayagan, the film romanticizes the larger-than-life “heroic” persona of the protagonist and empathizes with him; which means, the other two men in opposition to Guru’s ways are shown in a much smaller dimension and their characters aren’t developed so much as to stand tall against Guru; thus, deliberately stopping short of Iruvar in its richness of depiction of the conflict faced between the protagonists.

What makes the film really endearing is the way the scenarios and the characters are conceived throughout the film, so full of familiar Mani Ratnam touches. Most of them work, and when they work, they work superbly. Take for example some delightfully written, brilliant scenes like Guru ringing the school bell in response to his father’s refusal to stand by his side on starting business on his own; or, Guru pouring the drink into the glasses of his colleagues at a house party as he charms them into his idea – which they themselves would neither imagine, nor agree to in a sober state – of starting a new polyester factory themselves; or, in depicting the love of Guru and Sujata for each other. Or, the way in which even the smallest of characters (like Guru’s newly-wed, close friend in his village) are so well fleshed out.
The overall mise en scène and the detailing of the different eras (the film posters of Kaagaz Ke Phool, Naya Daur) is spot on, but the political and legal aspects are kept in the background and there is no didactic treatment examining the problems that existed back then with the largely socialistic setup in the early decades post-independence. Nevertheless, there are clear references to License Permit Raj which made it difficult for new entrants to make it big in the market. Guru blames it on this system for his taking ways out of the system to sustain and grow his business.

The onscreen performances and the work by the technical departments (with Mani’s stamp all over) are all top-notch. Rahman’s score works pretty well with the soaring chorus, unrestrainedly infectious beats lending themselves really well during the sequences of Guru’s rise. But, songs, as has been the case in Mani saar films in the recent past, serve as real show stoppers.

The denouement of the film is like the characteristic Mani Ratnam-esque positive ending. But, it’s also real, which is why I don’t have any qualms about it. But, the way it’s staged itself is a bit too congratulatory on the protagonist. Like in Nayagan, Mani Ratnam romanticizes the victory of Gurukant Desai the visionary [2] – and I wasn’t surprised at all considering his tendencies to stage such finales – rather than maintaining a stiff upper lip about the protagonist’s strides. (And, the “Sapney Dekho!” bit was really overdone.)
Even here, Guru bhai’s final defence (did we need those flashing camera movements?) in the courtroom in front of the junta is essentially a piece of showing off, a grand speech to garner their support, after calculated silence till then. (Am I the only one who noted that his jaw stops drooping down as he starts his defence and slyly comes back to its drooping position after he finishes his speech?)
And, the denouement is just real; that he is a hero, an icon in the common man’s eyes and that the collapse was just a hiccup. Mani Ratnam doesn’t take a stance on either side in a moral or an ethical respect. He is rather awed at the persona of Gurukant Desai in the junta’s view. Gurukant Desai – take this at its face value – is a winner; and, so it is, even in the real life scenario. And, this story, after all, is the winner’s version.

[1] – In one scene, Sujata is shown to have a mole on her left shoulder, a direct reference to Pushpa, the character she played in Iruvar.

Cross-posted at Naachgaana.com.

18 comments:

  1. Nice review :-)
    I noted the Pushpa mole too - and then started wondering in puzzlement - does Rai actually have a mole? :-)
    BTW, what did you intend as footnote #2? You don't seem to have it below.
    It seems that 2/3rd-good Mani does well at the box office than full Mani.
    Good points about the capitalistic nature of the movie - clearly something that film historians will write theses about.

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  3. Ramanand,
    Even I thought of such a possibility in amusement. More so, because, it's so uncharacteristic of Mani Rathnam to make pop-culture references (leave aside one to his own movie) purely in a pop-culture perspective!

    There is no footnote #2 (I must've moved it to within). I'll modify it. Thanks!

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  4. Problem with your comment tool? I posted something this morning and it doesn't show up...

    Anyway, nice review.

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  5. Prasad, thanks. Not sure how the comment went into thin air.

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  6. Did you notice his next film Lajjo's story? Looks like a Vishal Bharadwaj kind of film. I mean the rural settings and complicated characters.

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  7. Plz visit my blog as www.gyann.blogspot.com. Anyway nice blog keep blogging.

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  8. Wonder how you notice so many things while watching a movie :-)

    IT was nice reading your review. YOu seem to have liked the movie inspite of all its hackeneyed presentaton.

    Don't you think Mani has to go back to making ad movies ? He is good only in 30 second bursts.

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  9. Great Escape:
    Yes, I surely like the movie, on the whole. I didn't think the presentation was hackneyed, but it was very Mani Ratnam-like, something that's so familiar to us, but yet likable.
    That's one thing with Mani Ratnam's films. There is a lot of finesse in the treatment that one doesn't care much about even some severe shortcomings.

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  10. I am with you on the review. It studies the movie very well in layers!
    The 'flaws'are hallmarks of Mani Ratnam:predictable sentimentalities which are at once endearing.

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  11. i noticed the mole too :-)

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  12. Maniratnam needs good copywriters. His caption for Yuva was also mediocre.

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  13. Gasquet Fan,
    I really hated the announcement that goes like, "3 men.. from 3 different strata.. " too. It was so unlike him. A caption for a film is itself so un-Mani-like, at first place. He should rather not employ any copywriters, if you ask me.

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  14. I am speechless. I am without speech. A very pro review. This is the fisrt dhaba I am reading ur movie lane.

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  15. Sriram,
    As I had said in the beginning of this post, I didn't want to take this as a MR film and "spoil" the show. And, I enjoyed the film despite its flaws.
    But, the tone of the post looks "very pro" because I was quite miffed with the criticisms that were lodged against the film in terms of its morality by critics in general, which I thought was hogwash.

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  16. This is a good fan review of the movie. Movie to put it simply is the weakest of all MR movies and perhaps is the most successful MR hindi movie of the decade.

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  17. Jaiganesh,
    I am not sure if I'd call Guru a weak work as such, even though it clearly stops way short of something as sophisticated as Iruvar. I don't even think it ranks the lowest among his Hindi films. Yuva is one weak film and it takes that position in my books.

    And, thanks for the comments!

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