Sunday, January 14, 2007

Guru - Inspiring and Powerful

Is Mani Ratnam's Guru based on Dhirubhai Ambani's life? Of course it is. However, through minor and perfunctory shuffling and fictionalization of facts and events, Mani Ratnam would have us believe that it is only a faint inspiration. One would have to be either a complete fool or completely ignorant to believe that. Almost every single fact of the film can be traced back to Dhirubhai's life, although not in the exact context. Son of a village schoolmaster, doesn't study beyond class 10, goes abroad and starts working as an attendant in a gas station, returns to India to start his own business, starts modestly by trading things like spices and fabrics, creates a huge industrial empire through clever manipulation of bureaucracy and legal loopholes, has a bitter rivalry with a Parsi industrial family, is hounded by a newspaper journalist, suffers a stroke......

If this is Guru, then who is Dhirubhai Ambani?

Having said this, I think it is important to still view Guru as fiction. Because, the moment you start looking at it as a biopic on Dhirubhai Ambani's life, all you would find are factual inaccuracies. Yes, the rudiments of Dhirubhai's life are all there, so are some important people in his life, but they appear in different and sometimes even dramatized context.

So let's accept that it’s 'inspired' by Dhirubhai's life, keep him out of the picture and then look at Guru on its own cinematic merit. How is Guru as a film then? It has some flaws no doubt, but on the whole this film works! After experimenting with a convoluted, though interesting, narrative in Yuva, Mani Ratnam is back with a simple, linear narrative structure. Yes, the film itself is a long flashback, but instead of the much abused technique of multiple intercutting of flashbacks he chooses to unravel the story in straightforward chronology. The audience becomes a co-passenger in Guru's heroic journey from rags to riches.

At the surface, Guru is nothing but a typical rags-to-riches tale that we have seen countless number of times on the silver screen. Its underlying message is obvious - Follow your Dream. What makes it stand out is its focused narrative, unmistakable period feel, Mani's masterly touch that is evident in almost every frame, and, most importantly, strong acting performances.

One sequence that I just can't get off my mind is the one where Guru (Abhishek) and Sujata (Aishwarya) are talking on a swing. It is a classic example of how every single aspect of the scene - its conceptualization, the setting, the way it's performed, the background song, lyrics - adds to its impact. Here we have the couple sitting on a swing (a metaphor for trying to reach the skies), the man tells his wife about his seemingly far-fetched ambition, but the wife - tongue in cheek of course - continues to indulge in mundane talk. And the song in the background - a simple Yaman melody - goes:

ऐ हैरत-ए-आशिक़ी जगा मत; पैरों से ज़मीं ज़मीं लगा मत

Can anyone better that?

There are many such sequences in the film that demonstrate Mani Ratnam's mastery over the cinematic medium. Another poignant scene is the one where Madhavan proposes to Vidya Balan. Again, a simple scene, but very impactful.

At times, one does feel that Mani Ratnam could have added more meat to the script by laying more emphasis on certain things Guru did to achieve his dream. We know that Guru is adept at "managing the environment - a euphemism for keeping bureaucrats and politicians happy" but how exactly he does that, we're never sure. Mani Ratnam chooses to handle this in a subtle manner, just by alluding to it. On second thoughts, this actually works well within the film. The point the Mani Ratnam is trying to make is - think big, and you can achieve your dreams. The how of it is immaterial.

The film is not without its flaws. Some of the sub-plots are poorly developed and some abandoned midway. For example, we don't know what happens to Guru's brother-in-law, Jignesh (Arya Babbar) after he walks out on him. His unexplained absence from the film after that sticks out like a sore thumb. His character had all the potential of adding some additional drama to the second half. Also, the Vidya Balan angle to the story is so poorly developed that it's almost inconsequential. Then, there's the climax, which appears a bit thanda and almost blasphemous to the extent of negating the importance of ethics and morals in an individual's quest for achieving his dream.

The other flaw, which though minor, irritated me no end was the authenticity of the village in the first half. It was supposed to be somewhere in Gujarat, but in Aishwarya's intro song, and also some other scenes, some elements creep into the shots that clearly show that it's somehwere in South India. This is the problem I've always had with Priyadarshan, but that even Mani Ratnam could overlook something like this is unacceptable.
I don't want to dwell upon the flaws because to me they're minor irritants. The film, on the whole, is inspiring and very powerful.

Technically, Guru stands out. Rajiv Menon's cinematography and Samir Chanda's authentic art direction add to the period feel of the film. A.R Rahman comes up with a superlative score yet again, and Gulzar's lyrics fit in beautifully. Trust Gulzar to come up with something innovative even for the most cliched of situations. A few examples:

तेरे बिन सोना पीतल, तेरे संग कीकर पीपल
आजा कटे न रतियाँ… तेरे बिना बेसुआदी बेसुआदी रतियाँ


मीठा है कोसा है, बारिश का बोसा है

How can a review of Guru be complete without talking about the performances? The film belongs to Abhishek Bachchan. Burdened with a complex role that demands an enormous range of the actor, Abhishek comes up with a finely nuanced performance. This is that role of a lifetime that every actor secretly dreams of. And Abhishek almost lives the role, he becomes the character. What can be a better tribute to the actor's talent than the fact that what we see on screen is Guru, not Abhishek. If he wants, Abhishek can safely hang his boots now: he will always be remembered for this role. Aishwarya, as Sujata, also does a fine job. She doesn't have any scenes to display high voltage histrionics (which is sadly mistaken for 'acting' in Indian cinema). But she registers a strong impact through a restrained and subtle display of emotions. She complements Abhishek perfectly. Take her out of the film, and Guru is stripped of a few layers of his character. This has to be her best performance to date. And yes, how can I forget Mithunda? Forget the assembly-line Z-grade masala flicks he churned out with nauseating regularity a few years back. In Guru, we get a glimpse of the actor who has won a couple National Awards in the past