Reviewed By Abhishek Bandekar
Posted 01/14/07 20:59:06

"Greed Is Good"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The muse is not kind on decent souls; she always seduces her creative master -be it a poet, writer or any other artist- to those lives and stories which obey a concrete arc of time’s cruelest joke. The artist wrongly assumes that he controls his creation, as writers do of characters, when really the artist unwittingly conforms to the laws of destiny- What goes up…must come down! Most often then, consciously or subconsciously, a heroic account is never really heroic; but tragic. Great tragedies make great epics and great epics need flawed heroes. Shakespeare understood this, as did Marlowe and so did our very own Ved Vyas. Even the Bible, Gita and Quran do. For nearly 95 percent of Guru’s running time Mani Ratnam seems to know this as well, except the final few minutes when the film gets afraid to reach the heights of a Citizen Kane.

Mani Ratnam’s Guru begins with a disclaimer that acquits it of any guilt about its supposed depiction of Indian business mogul Dhirubhai Ambani’s life. An hour into the film and we realize that the disclaimer is merely legalese. When Gurukant Desai(Abhishek Bachchan) comes to Mumbai in the late 50s(posters of Kaagaz Ke Phool and Naya Daur act as subtle hints, not to mention the trams) with his wife Sujata(Aishwarya Rai) and brother-in-law Jignesh(Arya Babbar), and takes his first steps towards eventual millionaire status as a stock trader lost in the cacophony of the then unlawful stock market, we know that Gurukant Desai IS Dhirubhai Ambani.

Gurukant, or Gurubhai as he is fondly called, dreams big even as a kid in the pastoral village of Idhar, Gujarat. A weak student, Gurubhai’s schoolteacher father(Rajendra Gupta) permits him to go to Turkey and work as a loader with his uncle Ghanshyam(Manoj Joshi) at an oil and petrol refinery. Guru may be weak at math, but he displays his perceptive skills at a young age when to Ghanshyam’s astonishment Guru outwits a street player at his own game by simple observation. This important scene is followed by what would seem an out-of-place item number featuring the openly sexual Mallika Sherawat. In fact the song Mayya Mayya, which takes place in some sort of a Turkish resto-bar, acts as Guru’s initiation into adulthood. Looking back, it is actually Mallika’s uninhibited invitation, vulgar yet tempting, that acts as a trigger which fuels Guru’s ambition for the bigger things, minus the ethics. Mallika’s brazen sexuality stands for consumerism, and one must say Mallika’s never been this appropriately cast. The song smoothly merges into the title credits, and it is surely a fine title sequence that gives you the feel of history being documented, irrespective whether it’s personal or public or both.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that though Guru is an individual’s story, Mani Ratnam obviously isn’t restricting it to the private. The character graph and actions of Guru, as well as of those that surround him, try to mimic the growth of India as a nation. It isn’t accidental that Guru calls his father Bapu, a father who is strict, honest and believes in modest living. Nor is it by chance that Sujata addresses her father(Sachin Khedekar) as Bapu and writes a letter to him asking why his country is free yet his daughter isn’t. Every allusion and reference is intended. When Guru returns to India from Turkey, he is chided by his mother(Sarita Joshi) as “Souten ka chokra”(stepson) and rightly so as he symbolizes an India that has been bred on its Imperial roots and morals where greed is not necessarily a bad thing.

It is this greedy ambition and heady drive for success that makes Guru marry Sujata, not out of love or arrangement but for dowry that he uses as capital investment. Guru eventually falls in love with Sujata, who literally enters his life as the dawn of a new morning. She grows to love him as well, and despite the minor hiccup in their relationship brought about by Jignesh’s revelation of Guru’s reason behind marrying her, the pair remains doggedly devoted to each other in good and bad.

Unperturbed by Jignesh’s parting ways(the script doesn’t explain the reason behind this and then conveniently forgets Jignesh for the rest of the movie), Guru continues on his road to fame and fortune. He exploits every loophole and bends every law; nothing comes between him and his destined success. Sujata never questions him; she remains by him in his every action. But slowly eyebrows are raised over Guru’s sudden and immediate rise. What took others 150 years to accomplish(an obvious allusion to the English), he achieves only in 10; a feat that his contemporaries are timid to be a part of. Just like his father who advised Guru to never dream.

The story and life of Guru in fact, and his battles, are the country’s perpetual struggle with its own father Mahatma Gandhi and his noble but unrealistic ideals. In 1951, Guru faces Bapu in the form of his father who doesn’t have faith in his son’s capabilities. Later in Mumbai, Guru finds in Manik ‘Nanaji’ Dasgupta(Mithun Chakraborty) a father figure. Nanaji, a mix of Indian Express founder Ramnath Goenka and eminent journalist Arun Shourie both of whom were friends of Dhirubhai but later wrote critical pieces against his wielding of power, becomes a mentor to Guru and helps him set his footing in the ‘club’ called Mumbai. Nanaji runs The Independent, a newspaper committed to the voice of the voiceless. The dhoti clad rim-spectacled Dasgupta resembles Mahatma Gandhi and even shares his values and principles. Nanaji is also a communist, apt as by the time we meet him the story is well into the 60s. Incidentally Nanaji’s daughter Meenu(Vidya Balan) suffers from multiples sclerosis and is rendered wheelchair-bound. That she is doted upon by Guru adds a poignant dynamic to the already simmering subtext which reaches its crescendo when Nanaji takes offence to Guru’s means and practices towards upward mobility and wages a battle against him, swearing to bring him down with the aid of forthright young journalist Shyam(Madhavan).

As Guru gets richer and stronger, so do Nanaji and Shyam’s crusade to expose him and his manipulations. A warning attack on Nanaji by Ghanshyam, a defensive punch really(boxing fans will understand), creates room for Mani Ratnam to present his central underlying argument. In an India that has the drive to succeed at any cost, an India that has lost its moral fiber; how do her sons deal with their father and his ideology? The answer is quite scary and bleak. Guru gets upset upon learning of the attack on Nanaji, one which he likens to raising hands on one’s father, while making it abundantly clear that he will not turn the other cheek.

After last year’s Rang De Basanti(that shook the youth from its slumber) and Lage Raho Munna Bhai(which recalled Gandhian principles), Guru becomes the third and final piece in Bollywood’s exploration of present day nationalism in light of the old. While Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai were suggestive pieces, attempting to offer solutions(although Lage Raho Munna Bhai avoided the trap cleverly), Guru is descriptive. It presents the state of the country as it is- an India where the future of communism is either old, handicapped or dead and an India where it is not wrong to break the rules as long as you’re not the only one doing it. At the same time Guru is also the third in Mani Ratnam’s trilogy of power. Like Velu Naicker of Nayakan and Anandam of Iruvar, Gurukant Desai is a character with limitless potential but in denial of his innate flaws. The connection to Iruvar is stronger as the relationship between Guru and Nanaji resembles that of Anandam and Tamilchelvam, a friendship that is not shy of combative criticism.

It is sad then to see the film copout in the final reels unlike Nayakan or Iruvar. When Guru is asked to explain his actions and his company’s discrepancies in front of the Thapar Commission, a government enquiry board, you expect the film to end on a bittersweet note like Quiz Show, but it ends a la Scent Of A Woman. Gurukant Desai is inexplicably sanitized and turned into a clean winner. The fall from grace never occurs, robbing the film of its tragedy and cutting Gurukant Desai short of becoming Charles Foster Kane. He unfortunately ends up closer to Howard Hughes and Gordon Gecco. I wouldn’t have had much problem with this had Mani Ratnam not led me to believe otherwise when minutes before Guru and Sujata reminisce of older, more innocent times as they revisit their one-room chawl, and the song in the background calls Guru a “jhoothon ka shahenshah”(king of deceit).

Sreekar Prasad deserves a tight knuckle-rap for using unnecessary strobe effects during Guru’s defense at the Commission hearing. His editing is uncharacteristically weak at other instances as well especially the song Barso Re- Aishwarya Rai’s introductory track that has been shot beautifully and is a delight despite its tune sounding similar to Rang Deeni(Dev) and its locales, though breathtaking, looking very much like Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

These, however, are minor quibbles(the end is a real dampener though) in a film that provides ample entertainment, both aesthetic and popular. Mani Ratnam stays true to the roots of Bollywood filmmaking and doesn’t do away with the songs and dances. The dialogues(Vijay Krishna Acharya) are crisp and massy, especially the one line “Naam tha nahin…hai, aur rahega!” (My name never is, and will remain)that Guru says to Azaan Contractor(Deepak Bajwa)- Guru’s nemesis, based on Bombay Dyeing owner Nowrojee Wadia’s son. Sameer Chanda superbly recreates the Mumbai of past decades with the minutest detail, including license plates on cars and the cars themselves from Impala to Morris. AR Rahman composes audience friendlier tunes for Ratnam this time around than he did for Yuva(an underrated album), although the songs Tere Bina and Ek Lo, Ek Muft aren’t utilized to their full potential, especially the former which has sets that look like they belong to a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, albeit not as gaudy. But then who can match Bhansali in gaudiness!

Mani Ratnam understands the language of subtlety. Probably the reason why the otherwise loud Mithun Chakraborty gives a performance that is atypically calm and understated. Vidya Balan breathes life into a role that is actually nothing but a subtle metaphorical device. Her relationship with Madhavan is very poignant, just like the kiss they share. Madhavan, notwithstanding his half-baked role, holds his own as a foil to Abhishek Bachchan’s Guru. Aishwarya Rai doesn’t have any one scene that allows her to stand out, but she complements Abhishek Bachchan very well. This brings us to Abhishek Bachchan! Guru is that role which years from now will be looked upon as the seminal moment when Abhishek Bachchan truly emerged from the shadows of his father. Abhishek goes the whole distance in this role that almost spans a lifetime. He gives his character unique nuances which he successfully maintains throughout the running length. He’s even added weight for the role. In terms of structure and scope this role will be tough to top for him, even if these are just early days in his career. Abhishek knows the importance of this role and does complete justice to it. I’ve never said this of any actor, but on different occasions in Guru, Abhishek reminded me of the best of Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hasan, Mammootty and Mohanlal all put together in a mixing bowl!

Despite the disclaimer, Guru is undoubtedly a take on Dhirubhai Ambani and his life till the 80s. Gurukant Desai like Ambani is a rags-to-riches story of a young boy from a village in Gujarat who goes to foreign shores(Dhirubhai went to Yemen) and returns back home to become a polyester trader in Mumbai before ultimately becoming the biggest businessman in the country and owner of a petrochemical firm. Like Ambani, Desai too uses arm-twisting tactics in forcing politicians to amend laws and indulges in other shady practices like converting non-convertible debentures into shares, etc. Gurukant Desai even suffers a stroke that renders his right side paralyzed just like Dhirubhai Ambani.

Yet despite this, Guru is a film that must and will be remembered as the crowning moment of Abhishek Bachchan’s iconicity. What had begun with Mani Ratnam’s Yuva has come full circle with his own Guru.

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