Ek lo ek muft (“Buy one get one free”) appears to be the lot of Gurukant Desai (Abhishek Bachchan), that is to say the law of, not unintended consequences, but unintended benefits. When as a boy he fails his exams he is able to wrangle permission from his schoolmaster father to go to Turkey and sell petrol cans, permission that would not have been forthcoming had he passed his school exams. When he wants a business partner (Jignesh, played by Arya Babbar) he gets a wife too, none other than Jignesh’s sister Sujatha (Aishwariya Rai). And when he gets his wife’s dowry – the initial capital for his business – he also gets a devoted spouse who radiates quiet strength. When they want a child they get twins. Heck, by film’s end we see that in amassing wealth and success Guru gets to wear – muft – the mantle of corporate populist, bringing capitalism and its benefits to the masses. In fact, when Guru arrives in Bombay he gets a surrogate father in “Nanaji” Manikdas Gupta (Mithun Chakraborty), and – also muft – a crusader adversary (egged on by newspaper baron Gupta) in Shyam Saxena (Madhavan), a journalist determined to bring Guru down. Oh well: five out of six ain’t bad.
Mani Ratnam’s Guru is the story of Gurukant Desai, a villager from Idhar, Gujarat, convinced of his lucky star and determined to succeed in bijness at all costs, no matter the attempts of the corporate establishment to keep him out, and the zeal of a leftist newspaper baron and his editor in bringing him down. His destiny is already written, Gurukant informs a skeptic early on in the film, and there is never any doubt that he is going to end up a business titan, second to none. But Guru is also the story (as Ratnam sees it) of an India in transition, from colonialism through license raj to free enterprise. As Ratnam concludes the tale the journey is a heroic one indeed, from an India where outsized ambition – in particular, the ambition of amassing great wealth – was frowned upon, to an India where the acquisition of wealth is seen as the great leveler, representing the best hope of the ordinary man for prosperity and happiness.
Ratnam is not blind to the warts inherent in an ambition that will stop at nothing to achieve its aim, and over the course of the film we see the affable, irrepressibly optimistic Guru become less and less accessible, “available” only in private settings or in orchestrated public spectacles before the shareholders of his company, Shakti Trading. Guru’s actions too become ever more obscure, available to the audience only through the prism of Nanaji and Shyam. The wide-eyed youth who turned down a coveted job in Turkey to return to India in order to start his own business seems like a distant memory indeed.
But in order to shoehorn his own vision into an overarching narrative of Guru triumphant, Ratnam has to cut some corners: when the journalistic crusade against Guru leads to a government crackdown and a commission of inquiry, Ratnam simply hands over the film to its title character, who proceeds to hold forth as the public incarnate, not bothering to deny any of the allegations of corruption and fraud leveled against him but justifying his transgressions by appealing to a higher law, not God but the public. “I am the public,” Guru rasps in the film’s memorable (and troubling) penultimate sequence, and it is clear that he feels his actions are justified because he has empowered the middle classes, and given them a stake in Indian industry. (He has done so by means of Shakti Trading’s various public offerings, the polar opposite of the family-run and closed corporation that, Guru suggests, held sway prior to his rise). While the film has hitherto led us to view such claims a bit askance, there is no trace of directorial irony in this sequence, carefully constructed to give Gurukant Desai the last word and to leave him the winner. It’s unclear whether Ratnam buys into this, but he certainly wants the audience to buy whatever Guru is selling.
None of this detracts from the fact that Ratnam remains arguably the least judgmental of popular directors in either Hindi or Tamil, and the cinematic magnanimity – able to take in a rather wide range of activity without malice or moralizing – that we have come to expect from films like Mouna Raagam, Nayakan, Iruvar, Dil Se, Alai Payuthey, Kannathil Muthamittal, and Aayitha Ezhuthu/Yuva is very much a hallmark of Guru. Thus we see that Gurukant marries Sujatha because of her dowry, and we see that he is not above smearing his corporate rivals via the media, or even of whipping up a little class hatred by resorting a little too easily to an “us” versus “them” rhetoric – yet we do not judge him. And nor is he the only one: we see Nanaji insulting Sujatha after she has come to his house to show him her babies; we see that Shyam Saxena is not above a little skullduggery himself if it makes for a racier story; and we see that the upright leftist Nanaji’s daughter Meenu (Vidya Balan) appears to be thrilled that Guru manages to get away with everything – thrilled just because – and we do not judge any of them either.
So too with the wider questions raised by Guru. It is surely a fact that, as Guru caustically observes, the license raj regime made it incredibly hard for entrepreneurs to succeed, thereby enabling the rich to get richer and to keep newcomers out of the market, or at least to deny them a seat at the “main” table (though Ratnam should have done more with the point that the same entrepreneurs who complained about the license raj also used it to entrench and enrich themselves). I can certainly agree with Guru’s complaint at film’s end that he is a creature of the license raj system, and that the latter incentivizes corruption. But it is also equally a fact that a bureaucrat-heavy system criminalizing ordinary entreprenurial activity is one thing, but – as Shyam Saxena points out – at least some of what Guru does cannot be classified as ordinary entrepreneurial activity. A case in point is when his company commits fraud by getting something for nothing, that is, by sending empty cartons abroad and reporting those as polyester exports. Shakti Trading would then use the export credits thereby received to secure licenses for importing machinery and goods that it could then resell at great profit.
There is something more than a little self-serving about Guru’s self-righteousness, and to his credit Ratnam sees that too. That Guru gets to win by film’s end is not because he is right but because the public accepts his position to be right. One might see this as a shamelessly commercial decision on Ratnam’s part, well aware that the mood of the moviegoing public – or at least that portion of the public that may be expected to patronize Ratnam films in multiplexes – is unabashedly gung ho about entrepreneurship at present. Iindeed it is difficult to imagine a figure more calculated to revolt contemporary India’s urban well-heeled than the manifestly leftie, ultra-smug journalist Shyam Saxena.
On the other hand, one might also read Guru’s vindication by film’s end as logically following from past Ratnam films, an instance of Ratnam’s refusal to pass final judgment. Thus, in Iruvar, Anandam (Mohanlal) bests his one-time mentor and friend Tamilchelvam (Prakashraj) in politics not because he is better than the latter, but because that’s what “the people” want. So too in Guru: the public wants what Gurukant Desai sells, and as in Iruvar, Ratnam bows to the press of history. Iruvar’s Tamilchelvam was left with the memory of a friendship and of a historical moment; to the Gurukant Desais of the world belongs the future.
No discussion of a Ratnam film since Roja can be complete without mention of A.R. Rahman’s music. I have already spoken at length of the album, but the background score is – even by Rahman’s lofty standards – impressive. The impact of the songs is greatly heightened by their use in the film, in particular the ones – Ae Hairat-e-Aashiqui being the most significant of these – that recur in the background at various points over the course of the film, binding together and juxtaposing different stages in the lives of Guru (and Sujatha). That being said, Ratnam’s visuals in the songs do not match the peaks of Pachchai Nirame (from Alai Payuthey), Kannathil Muthamittal (from the film of the same name), Narumugaiye (from Iruvar), Goodbye Nenba/Khuda Hafiz (from Aayitha Ezhuthu/Yuva), or Satrangi Re (from Dil Se), although there are some spectacular visuals in Barso Re, and striking ones in Ek Lo Ek Muft, and Mayya Mayya.
Rajeev Menon’s cinematography is consistently of very high quality -- in particular, the film features several jawdropping landscape and monument shots. While this viewer did find himself missing the virtuosity of Kannathil Muthamittal, it is clear that Ratnam has rather deliberately gone in a for a far more accessible visual aesthetic, one reflecting his ambitions for Guru as an all-India film. In a similar vein, the set of Bombay in the 1950s is a landmark in Indian cinema, and worthy of the man who directed Thotta Tharani’s Dharavi in Nayakan.
Returning to the film’s penultimate scene, if Guru’s harangue jars because it does not really follow from what has preceded it – Guru has always been in the game to make money, not to benefit the middle classes by giving them a stake in his company; indeed Shakti Trading’s first public offering is simply a consequence of the banks’ unwillingness to lend to the new kid on the block – the film does not really suffer from it. The reason is Abhishek Bachchan, who carries the scene (and the rest of the film) off with a bravura performance that is surely one for the ages.
Abhishek exhibits great range in this role, and is convincing and compelling – in a word, superb – in all his character’s hues, from the wide-eyed youngster to the determined businessman to the unctuous, self-satisfied middle-aged tycoon, and finally as a stroke-riddled icon, a prophet of the future. Perhaps the finest compliment one can pay his work here is to say that Ratnam puts him on terrain previously inhabited by Kamal Haasan in Nayakan, and Mohanlal in Iruvar, and Abhishek does not let his director’s faith down. While Iruvar’s Anandam remains a class apart for Mohanlal’s freakishly natural yet ineffably mysterious act, I consider it no exaggeration to put Abhishek’s Gurukant on at least the same level as Kamal’s Velu Naicker – not to mention that Abhishek’s screen presence and charisma comfortably outdo that of his illustrious forebear. On more than one occasion one discerns traces of Amitabh Bachchan’s own legendary turn as Vijay Deenanath Chauhan in Agneepath, yet the intersection of these two trajectories – Amitabh’s legacy and Ratnam’s Tamil cinema – results in a performance that while owing many debts, is at the same time very much Abhishek’s own.
It is fortunate – for Guru, which could not otherwise “work” at any level – that Abhishek is in such good form, for he needed to be given the presence of Mithun Chakraborty and Madhavan in the cast. The former’s is the more obvious performance, solid and effective at all times but not especially nuanced. In a relative sense, and despite being abruptly written out of the film, it is Madhavan who tests Abhishek’s dominance the most in this film, with a quietly strong performance bordering on the sinister: contempt for Guru and everything he represents shines in Madhavan’s eyes virtually every time he is on screen. In particular, Madhavan’s entry scene, featuring Mithun and Abhishek as well, is a masala fan’s delight. So is the only other meeting between Shyam Saxena and Guru, where Madhavan’s understated naturalness serves as a great foil to Abhisek’s anger.
Aishwariya Rai had a lot more to do in this film than I had initially expected, and after Iruvar and Guru it is now clear that Ratnam is able to get more from her than just about anyone else. At no point is she less than convincing, first as the spunky village girl and then as Guru’s wife. Especially welcome is Ratnam’s characterization of Sujatha as an equal partner in her marriage, a relief given the rampant sexism of so much of our cinema. Aishwariya’s Sujatha inspires confidence, even when she isn’t saying anything.
Vidya Balan’s Meenu is an intriguing character, afflicted by multiple sclerosis and clearly fascinated by Guru’s audacity. While Ratnam does not explore her psychology as much as I would have liked, one is left with the distinct impression that to this young woman who lives with constant pain and the thought of impending death, there is something immensely compelling about Guru’s vitality, his hunger for more of everything. Meenu keeps joking that she wants to marry Guru, offering a glimpse of her psyche and of the position Guru holds within it: outsider, rebel, and possessed of great appetite. In a word: life.
Mani Ratnam is one of my favorite directors when it comes to capturing “little” scenes of the sort that other directors either pass over or can only conceptualize in overwrought terms. Guru is no exception, and there are a host of private moments that make the characters human (indeed Guru far surpasses Nayakan in terms of the number of memorable characters it features). Gurukant and Sujatha have several of these (mostly in the film’s first half; one of the casualties of the second half’s focus on Guru’s struggles against Nanaji and Shyam Saxena is the endearing relationship between husband and wife), including a playful bedroom scene. Towards the end the couple re-visit their first home in Bombay to reminisce, and although Ratnam inserts this scene somewhat abruptly, the cocktail of affection and nostalgia – and an Abhishek-Aishwariya pairing that is very comfortable and effective – is too strong to resist.
I conclude by noting that Madhavan and Vidya Balan form a strange counterpoint to the Abhishek-Aishwariya pair in the film’s second half, and I was especially struck by the charming romantic scene where Shyam asks Meenu to marry him. The scene is the only indication we have that Shyam is more than just a relentless activist, and goes a long way toward humanizing him. More significantly, Shyam’s response to Meenu’s claim that there would be little purpose to marriage as she only has four hundred-odd days to live – Shyam says he wants every single one of those days – highlights the difference between Gurukant’s calculus – he decides to marry Sujatha upon hearing of her dowry – and Shyam’s own worldview. The four hundred days Shyam wants is not a question of calculation, but of incalculable joy. Ratnam’s irony here is dark indeed: the latter couple is oriented towards death – Meenu will die, and die childless – while Guru and Sujatha are oriented towards life – Gurukant will live, and live to see his children grow up. The future, that is to say, is Guru's.