SHOW ME THE MANI
An unabashed ode to capitalism is wickedly entertaining for the most part – until it gets all righteous on us.
JAN 14, 2007 – MANI RATNAM’S GURU OPENS in a Gujarat village in 1951 – a time when the heady whiffs of independence hadn’t yet rotted away into the stench of cynicism. There’s a can-do spirit in the air – something that informs the actions of both women (like Sujata – played by a spirited, moving, and very beautiful Aishwarya Rai – who elopes after leaving behind a letter to her father that says she wishes to be free, like her country) and men (like Guru – Abhishek Bachchan – who rebels against a job because he’s required to wear that symbolic yoke of the British: a tie). And when Guru leaves his village to seek employment in big, bad Bombay – a city of Buick ads and large, lumbering trams – you can’t help flashing back to Shri 420, which warned the citizens of a newly-independent India about the Faustian bargain that is usually struck in the quest for success. You can make it big, but you’ll have to sell your soul, it said – and this message probably reflected the socialist bent of the era. Shri 420 was, therefore, a morality play, replete with a redemption scenario – and what’s most fascinating about Guru, who would be Raj Kapoor’s contemporary, is that he doesn’t need redeeming. He’s unapologetic about wanting money, making money, and wanting to make more money. If this movie had been made in the time it opens in, its protagonist would have been our cinema’s first unabashed capitalist.
And the first half of Guru – which plays like the movie equivalent of a picaresque novel, where the roguish, low-class hero relies on his wits to survive (except that his “adventures” are in the world of business) – is the textbook definition of intelligent, entertaining, commercial cinema. (Well, except for the songs, but more about that later.) Guru is a charming crook who’ll do anything it takes – and that includes shamelessly marrying the older Sujata simply because she brings with her a fat dowry. (And irony of ironies, the man she wanted to elope with earlier, he was a red-flag waver, a… communist.) In these early portions, almost everything is made to look like a business transaction – whether it’s Guru jingling the coins in his hand as he leaves Turkey (where he’s worked for a while; the exposure to the spice markets there prepare him for the textile markets in Bombay), or Sujata haggling with the vegetable vendor, or Sujata striking a post-pooja deal with the father-like newspaper publisher (Mithun Chakraborty, superbly torn between love for an individual and loyalty to a nation) that she’ll give him a piece of the sweet prasad only if he brushes aside his atheism and allows her to apply a teeka on his forehead, or the doctor telling Guru that Sujata has had twins. (“Double munafa,” he cracks, and I cracked up even more upon hearing the names of the two girls – Disha and Drishti, both of which are indicative of the kind of verbiage that wouldn’t be out of place in a company’s annual report. And it’s a nice touch that Guru has his children late in life; perhaps he had to focus on building an empire before building a family.)
The birth of Guru’s children, however, leads to one of the least graceful segments in the film – and that’s the sequence built around the number Ek lo ek muft, where Abhishek downs a brass-tumblerful of bhang and begins to dance. I am all for the conventions of commercial cinema, but did we really need to see Abhishek – at this point, a hugely successful businessman of a certain age – executing the choreography. Wouldn’t the song have been just as fun with a group of dancers around Abhishek and Aishwarya (who also gets into the act, post-partum)? This made me remember Trishul – a movie with a different Bachchan, but with a similar business background – and not once did we see the hero hoofing around; singing, yes, but dancing, no. Mani Ratnam was, at one time, the most exciting conceptualiser of music videos, but with Kannathil Muthamittal and Yuva, I got the suspicion that he was losing interest in filming songs – and that feeling intensifies when you look at what’s been done with AR Rahman’s terrific soundtrack in Guru. Mayya Mayya comes off as the first-ever item number to be shoehorned into a Mani Ratnam movie, though this may be a result of some of the Turkey portions being edited out – for the cutaways with Mallika Sherawat suggest that she played some sort of role in Guru’s life in Istanbul. And this song is followed almost immediately by Aishwarya Rai going Barso re, which is heavily reminiscent of Ratnam’s earlier outings in the rain. (But the second stanza, which shows Sujata leaving her house, is perfectly in sync with Gulzar’s words, where she asks her surroundings not to forget her. Plus, the nighttime photography is breathtaking. The entire film, actually, is a Rajiv Menon showreel.) More heartbreak follows with the exquisite Ae hairat-e-aashiqui being butchered and served up in pieces as background music between dialogues, and with Tere bina oddly interspersing intimate moments of sadness with all-out, all-colour choreographic spectacle.
For all these musical breaks, the headiest song-dance equivalents are in the film’s graceful leaps across time – one minute you see a poster of Naya Daur, the next you hear Jo vaada kiya woh on the gramophone, and you know you’ve hopped over from the 1950s to the 1960s. There’s a staggering amount of detail in Guru, like crumbs strewn on a trail to help you pick up the pieces. Earlier, for instance, I wondered why this villager never had the slightest trace of self-doubt. The first day he walks into the textile trading market and takes in the complete chaos there, he’s hardly overwhelmed. Instead, when he asks for membership into this association and a trader discourages him, he looks up with serene self-awareness and says that one day he’ll be back, trading alongside. But perhaps his confidence is the confidence of a new India. After all, when he returns home from Istanbul, as he gets off the train and sets foot on the platform, the sky behind him spills over with the glow of the rising sun – the promise of a new dawn and all that. And Abhishek Bachchan’s commanding performance – aided greatly by dialogues that positively snap and crackle with electricity – takes care of the rest. Before the film’s release, the actor kept claiming that he’d never get another role like this – and now you see that this isn’t just hype. This is really one of those parts that span years, moods, highs, lows – and to get a sense of a part with similar scope, it may help to recall Citizen Kane. Abhishek is just a few years older than Orson Welles was when he portrayed Kane across a lifespan, and that’s not the only way Guru reminds you of the earlier classic. Both films feature a morally ambiguous hero, both have as their conscience a straight-arrow reporter (Shyam Saxena here, played by Madhavan with a quiet dignity), both include a major moment with their leading men on a stage delivering a rousing speech, and both choose to visit their heroes at key points in their lives and thus dispense with conventional notions of character continuity (the bit in Guru where the passage of ten years is bookended by the flashing of cameras appears a direct nod to Welles and Kane).
But where Guru diverges from Kane is in wanting us to empathise with its protagonist – something Welles wasn’t at all interested in; he gave us instead a cold, calcified bastard who stood for the failures that follow capitalistic success – and in that respect, it may be more useful to revisit Ratnam’s own Nayakan, beginning with the fact that it was Velu bhai there and it’s Guru bhai here. Madhavan’s expose-the-hero-for-who-he-is character reminds you of Nasser’s cop in the earlier film, and they’re both married to someone very close to the person they’re trying to bring down. When Guru storms into Shyam Saxena’s house, all set for a confrontation, and then stops short because he sees Saxena’s wedding picture, that’s right out of Nayakan, as is the bit where an enquiry commission is looking into Guru’s shady deals and a well-wisher tells our hero – as he’s about to enter the courtroom – not to worry, that nothing will happen to him. Another startlingly similar scene here is the one where Guru barges into the house of someone who’s caused his business to shut down and intimidates this man into backing off, the way Velu barged into the house of the seth who was trying to raze down the slums and intimidated this man into backing off. But the most significant parallel is in the way both films shield us – to a large extent – from the protagonists’ misdeeds; they’re good to those around them, and they’re bad only to the characters we don’t especially care about. We know Velu bhai had people killed, just as we know Guru bhai has broken all laws, and then some. But apart from the stray sight of Guru blackmailing a politician – a moment filled with deliciously implied menace – we’re not shown things that would make it difficult for us to side with our hero, and he’s as deified by this film’s end as Velu was in Nayakan. (The anthemic Jaage hain plays non-stop in the background, apparently cueing not just emotional but spiritual uplift.)
And that, to me, was the biggest problem in Guru. I was all for Guru as long as he was using every trick in the book to get ahead. After all, who doesn’t like a root-for-the-underdog story, especially one this ravishingly crafted? (Some of the images have to be seen to be believed, like the one that has Guru standing at the site where his factory is going to be built, with the plans spread out between his hands in a way that covers the entire bottom portion of the screen – and as a final note of grace, he gets a blessing from the heavens: it rains.) But to say that he did this all for the people, his shareholders – isn’t that a little disingenuous? Maybe you could equate the general circumstances that made Velu and Guru the men they turned out to be – both broke laws because the existing system wouldn’t help them; they were have-nots who had to grab because the haves would not give – but surely there’s a difference between someone becoming a gangster-boss to protect the underprivileged people around him and someone becoming a crooked businessmen to line his own pockets. I didn’t care that Guru cheated the government by exceeding his production quotas or by faking exports or by brushing aside licensing regulations. But the implication that this makes him some sort of messiah, that the efforts of people like him could help us crawl out of third-worldness and begin nipping at the First World’s heels – all this, in a grandstanding bit of oration from Guru, hysterically filmed with whip-pans and fast-zooms and lightning-strobe effects – struck me as a rather unconvincing attempt to extrapolate a single man’s success story to the context of an entire nation, despite the conceit that the materialism of this character mirrors the materialism of India. Why not simply leave things at the fact that he did well, that he earned all those crores, and, yes, those who hitched their wagon to this rising star also did well, and end of story?
The film is so stacked in favour of its leading man – the indulgent smile that the head of the enquiry commission (Roshan Seth) gives after Guru makes his defense argument, it’s as if he simply caught a kid with his hand in the cookie jar; besides, Seth’s plummy intonations are a perfect stand-in for the Brits of yore, for he’s yet another someone trying to repress the Hindi-speaking everyIndian represented by Guru – that the stabs at exposing his other side are quite unconvincing. Madhavan, especially, suffers from this because you expect more from this morally-indignant firebrand-journalist – that too, one introduced so dramatically as a potential adversary; a “hero” to the “villain” that Guru represents – than that silly outburst at Guru’s factory where he leaves the manager (a very fine Manoj Joshi) shaking about the extent to which he is aware of the production illegalities there. I came away remembering more of his scenes with Vidya Balan, a multiple sclerosis victim, who – at first – seemed merely to be this film’s equivalent of Tinnu Anand’s mental-defective from Nayakan, someone who helps bring out the sympathetic side of the protagonist and who hero-worships him, but she has a few resonant moments that showcase Ratnam’s mastery in sketching out even the people on the sidelines. She has very little screen time, but she leaves a big impression – as do Rajendra Gupta (as Guru’s father), Arya Babbar (as Sujata’s brother and Guru’s partner-in-law), Sachin Khedekar (as Sujata’s hard-of-hearing father), Darshan Zariwala (as Guru’s loyal aide) and Dhritiman Chaterji (dripping silky menace as a business rival). It’s enormously gratifying when even these blink-and-miss characters appear to exist with all the weight of people who’ve led full lives. It gives the film the dimensions of a novel when you learn, for instance, that Khedekar was the one who lent money to Guru’s father for a business venture that flopped, and when Guru goes back to Khedekar to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he’s really doing what his father did, which is to ask for (dowry) money.
And Sujata is one of Mani Ratnam’s most vivid, vibrant heroines. She’s Guru’s wife, which is to say – in Guru’s lingo – she’s his 50% partner, and this is one of those rare instances that a heroine has a part as significant and as expansive as the hero’s. She’s one of those Indian wives who are always behind their husbands, no matter what, and if she has reservations about his way of doing things, she’s not one to let them show. There’s a remarkable scene towards the end when Guru asks her if he’s truly as corrupt as the media is making him out to be, and she replies in a beautifully understated way. Looking at this older version of her husband, she says, “Mere pati ke shakal se milti hai.” You could take this to mean that the man beside her merely looks like the man she once married (and that everything else about him is different), or you could interpret this as a simple affirmation that he’s still the same to her and that she’s simply referring to the lines on his face and the streaks of grey in his hair – but either way, you come away with a sense of her unflinching commitment to her husband. And that’s really why you watch Mani Ratnam’s movies. He may display an alarming naiveté in describing political or business scenarios, and his endings may seem disappointingly tame when compared to the truly wonderful beginnings and middles – but when it comes to relationships, he’s out there in a league all by himself. Even if the larger picture doesn’t grab you, you come away dazzled by the characters and their interpersonal dynamics – and that’s the stuff that makes each one of his films, well, a reliance product.
Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express