'Guru' - a movie reviewMani Ratnam's Guru was probably intended to be his Hindi equivalent of what Alaipayuthe was in Tamil - a return to simpler story-telling after the adventures of Yuva and Iruvar. Alaipayuthe was a big hit, fuelled by the popularity of the music, the 'youth quotient' of the story, and the freshness of the lead pair. Guru, in contrast, has a much more subdued soundtrack appeal, a more ponderous story line, and a pair whose main acting cheers have only come before in Ratnam films.
Despite the mandatory Mani Ratnam opening disclaimer, Guru makes several clear references to the life of Dhirubhai Ambani, not just in spirit, but also in details like Burmah Shell, the paralysis, and the business domain. The story places Gurukant Desai as the canny and enterprising protagonist, and doesn't quite show the shades of grey as much as one would expect. The result is a film shrouded primarily in old-style Indian mainstream film colours - a clearly defined protagonist with the occasional misdemeanours that you turn a blind eye too that the story must end happily for. As a result, don't expect any significant surprises with the story. Yet, the story is warmly told.
The plot tells of dynamic businessman Guru (Abhishek Bachchan), his wife Sujata (Aishwarya Rai), his ambivalent relationship with friend/mentor/foe Manik 'Nanaji' Dasgupta (Mithun Chakraborty), Nanaji's ward (I didn't quite understand their relationship) Minu (Vidya Balan), the angry young journalist Shyam Saxena (R. Madhavan) and a host of small parts. Guru is one-dimensional in the sense that all he worries about is getting to next buck. The tale takes us through 30 years of his life in becoming India's top businessman. I read Gita Piramal's book 'Business Maharajahs', especially the section on Dhirubhai Ambani, a few months ago and realised that though these men have extremely exciting lives on their corporate battlefields (and none more interesting than Ambani's own), it is quite difficult to convey that excitement to the reader. This is true of Guru as well.
The film's biggest problem is that it never hits any signficiant high notes for too long. The rousing defence speech at the end is quite well-made, but comes in too late to save the ship. The Vidya Balan angle seems very superfluous to proceedings and was perhaps placed to keep Nanaji and Guru connected during their period of warfare. The reporter bit is a little wasted too.
The other big contender for "oh no" moments are some of the song placements. For a while, Mani Ratnam has struggled with songs, even though he defends the idea in almost all his interviews. The songs crept back into Yuva (even Rahman admitted recently that they "started apologetically"), and in Guru, they appear too close to each other, aren't quite exploited, or are plainly an unnecessary reflex from an age when 6 song situations were blocked out on screen-time. 'Mayya Mayya' cleverly blends into the title sequence (a nice shuffling of paper). 'Barso Re' is supposed to be an introduction to the heroine's character, but a more definitive underlining happens with her actions towards the end of the song, which rendered the song unnecessary. Instead, it becomes a mere clone of 'chinna chinna' (Roja) or even 'konjum mainakkaLe' (Kandukondain...)(1) and an excuse to give Rai some pretty screen time. The gorgeous 'Aye hairath-e-aashiqui' fades into the background only to appear sporadically. 'Baazi Lagaa' is the aural equivalent of a blink-and-miss. 'Tere Bina' is wonderful to listen to, but the choreography was looked like a series of out-takes. I wonder if that was intentional. I liked the counterpoint of the situation for the song, but for a better use of that device, refer Rang De Basanti. The film begins with the anthemic 'Jaage.n hai der tak', but its relative absence in the rest of the film doesn't seem to justify its theme status. However, Rahman does pull a surprise with the version with Guru's daughters singing it - a very emotional chord is struck at that point. 'Yamo Yamo' is so late and useless that even Wodehouse wouldn't be able to find an adequate simile. You need to sit down and have a think about the songs, Mr. Ratnam. The usually innovative choreography of your films was insipid this time.
That's not to claim that there aren't any other moments of interest - a couple of nice editing cuts, the domestic chemistry between Sujata and Guru (Mani Ratnam has traditionally been good at portraying middle-class mores) and the attack on Nanaji. Mithun Chakraborty (in a respectful touch, he is credited first) is very good in a role, the kind of which I'm sure no one's seen him do in a long time. With all the dancing and flying, we tend to forget the wonderful straightforward acting talent that he has selectively put on display. This will remove the rust from those memories. Abhishek Bachchan gets full points for effort. I can think of very few 'stars' who would be willing to let themselves go physically in the manner seen and display a paunch proudly, but I guess this is the famed 'I will do anything for Mani Ratnam' effect. Acting-wise, he does a decent job with some flares of excellence. But he is by no means a naturally gifted talent like his dad or even a Hrithik Roshan, and that shows (2). People who have surprised by comments that Aishwarya Rai actually acted well in Iruvar will see what I mean when they see this film. For one, she isn't at all irritating. Moments of affected lower-class touches as seen in Raincoat are very, very few. The best test is when she is not the focus of a frame (as happens several times) and she remains in character. It's a director-driven performance that should decrease some of the flak she's received. Personally, I found her performance to be good. (An interesting touch was that the film portrays her as someone who is slightly older to Guru, just as in real life!)
A host of minor cast appearances can be spotted, mostly competent - Dhritiman Banerjee was a bit of a surprise. Rajeev Menon's camerawork was too jittery for my liking, and I long for the days of P.C.Sriram or Santosh Sivan. Vijay Acharya's dialogues were a little patchy - the finale speech was well-done - but this film needed some magic in the dialogues which was missing. One wonders whether the outcome would have been different had Anurag Kashyap continued to work on it (he, along with other Mani Ratnam writing regulars, Tamil writer Sujata and Suhasini, receives a credit for additional dialogues.) Nice art direction as usual by Samir Chanda, with the old posters of Kaagaz Ke Phool and Naya Daur, the Turkish spots, and the tram that plays its part at one point.
If you're one whose followed the films of Mani Ratnam, then you'll be disappointed with this film and its place in the ordered filmography. Mani Ratnam has done much better in the past, and with one arm behind his back. However, it seems to me that those viewers without that baggage may warm to Guru. After all, the films I don't seem to think much of do fairly well at the box office, and if it happens here, I wouldn't complain too much. It's a sincere effort, commendably without any gimmicks unlike other big productions, and one that attempts a cosmopolitan touch. For the head-shakers, a viewing of Iruvar or Kannathil... or Nayagan or Mouna Ragam may be in order.
* Trailer watch before the film showed glimpses of both films on top of my drool-list: The Blue Umbrella, which now will be distributed by UTV on a bigger scale, and 'Black Friday', which is coolly exploiting the fact the film was banned for two years in the trailer (I could see snatches of scenes of the 45 minutes missing in the bootleg print). (All news about both via George 's blog)
Reviews: The film seems to be getting mixed but mostly positive reviews. Rediff's Raja Sen was first off the blocks with feelings of what may have been, Baradwaj Rangan's happy with several aspects but questions some of the morality.
1. incidentally involving both the directors of those films here.
2. and obviously, we aren't even going to talk about previous Ratnam bio-pic actors like Kamalhassan or Mohanlal
3. Personal highlight: first time I've done a "first day, first show"!