A Decade to Mani Ratnam’s Guru

Note: The article is author’s personal opinion

The middle-aged Guru

Very few film-makers in India can make semi bio-pics and real life cinema as potent and persuasive as Mani Ratnam. His 2007 release Guru based on one of India’s biggest businessman and Reliance Industries founder Dhirubhai Ambani is a cinematic classic and a text-book of film-making. Guru is one of my all time favorite films of Mani Ratnam. It made me discover my love for the world of cinema and follow this art more closely. I watched Guru when I was 16 and was blown away by the sheer brilliance which went into making the film. The film stayed with me in moments both bright and dark. I hummed and sang the songs from then on as I could see Guru slowly creep into my DNA and existence. Even today when I feel dull and demotivated, all I do is go to Youtube and switch on Guru and I feel restored and recharged. There is a strong dose of inspiration in the film atleast for me. Being an ardent fan of Mani Ratnam, I have loved and learnt from each of his film but Guru is that towering exam for me personally. Guru completes 10 glorious years today and here’s 10 things about the film which are remarkable:

1. The Story of Guru

The heart of the film is this story. Inspired by the real-life story of the Dhirubhai Ambani, Guru is the story of an average Indian finding success, freedom, comfort, happiness, companionship and relentless courage in his pursuit to build a profitable business empire. It traces Guru’s life from being a school drop-out to a deft commodity trader to a threatened new entrant in garment business to a ruthless capitalist pursuing every goal of business with shareholder’s money. The story of Guru is dramatic and compelling because it is the story which tugs the heart of every Indian who wishes to make a comfortable living for himself.

2. Abhishek Bachchan

Abhishek Bachchan deserves a good piece in the cake for what Guru is today. Playing the titular role of Gurukanth Desai, Abhishek undergoes an excellent physical transformation especially for the later parts of the film putting on oodles of weight notably the big belly resembling Dhirubhai himself. The Jr. Bachchan put in exemplary effort especially in the ageing part looking the older Gurukanth in a pitch-perfect manner. Another stunning aspect of Abhishek in the film is portraying the film as it needs him to be calm, gentle and passionate and kicked up at the same time. There are high adrenaline moments in the film especially the confrontation with Mithun da in the interval but Abhishek smiles calmly mouthing sharp dialogues in the most jetsful manner. Abhishek has a career spanning close to 2 decades but Guru remains his best work.

3. The Screenplay

The scene where Sujatha describes Guru’s paunch as big because it is carrying Shakti’s shareholders

Guru captures almost 55 years in the life of Ambani across 3 generations, 2 countries and 4 governments. Mani Ratnam’s intelligent screenplay is one of the many other reasons why Guru remains like a beautiful painting which unravels at a swift pace. He doesn’t cram the film with too much inspiration but captures beautiful little moments filled with humor and genuine romance. The narrative captures the rise and fall of Guru along with his final victory documenting important moments while capturing intimate fictional moments like the romance of Guru and Sujatha, the mutual camaraderie between Guru and Dasgupta and the unusual enmity between Shyam and Guru in the most amusing way. Guru may be a ruthless businessman but yet frisky in bed with Sujatha, sarcastic with his father-figure Dasgupta and boisterous with his friends. The one scene after interval in the bedroom of Guru where both the husband and wife measure their paunches and Guru’s wife Sujatha compares Guru big stomach as a house of 25,000 shareholders of Shakti Corporation and the scene wittitly cuts to a shareholder meeting is one pounding example on how bio-pics are made. The film balances imagination and reality punctiliously. Another notable aspect of Guru is the way the scenes are treated and the drama is enacted. There are moments of high tension especially the whole fallout before interval. What could have been a loud farce & cacophpony actually turns out to be a grave yet gentle exchange. The meeting with the politician in the 2nd act (i guess this one is inspired by Rajiv Gandhi) is another clever moment.

4. Mithun Chakraborty

Mithun Da as the old school media baron

The strength of Guru is its conflict. A conflict of an an aspiring capitalist with an old school upright Gandhian media baron who is also his mentor. The battle lines are clear yet the love is palpable. The dissent is visible while the respect is ardent. The contempt is primary though the concern is evident. Mithun Chakraborthy, as Manik Dasgupta is almost perfect as the arch-rival of Gurukanth Desai. Mithun Da brings the staunch Bengali accent to his character along with an aching vulnerability to his heart whose daughter is suffering from a terminal ailment. There are no guesses that the character of Manik Dasupta is inspired and borrowed from Indian Express Chairman Dr. Ramnath Goenka who was active then in his fight against Reliance and Ambanis.

5. Madhavan and Vidya Balan

The unusual proposal in the rain

A word of mention to the supremely talented Madhavan and Vidya Balan. There is an unusual romance which blossoms between the sly-minded news reporter Madhavan and the marriage obsessed wheelchair bound Vidya Balan. Guru was the 4th straight collaboration of Mani Ratnam right from his debut Alaipayudhey where Madhavan plays Shyam Saxena, a protege of Manik Dasgupta who leads the expose campaign against Guru. A character inspired by the leading CA and lawyer S Gurumurthy, Madhavan grins the character to perfection. There is a painstaking physical transformation Madhavan underwent for the role where he is in his slimmest.

6. Rajiv Menon’s Lens

Mani Ratnam’s cinematographers are the best. Period. Mani Ratnam’s old friend and India’s leading ad-man Rajiv Menon’s work in Guru is reminiscent of a Raja Ravi Varma painting. Capturing India from 1951 to early 2000s, Rajiv’s lenswork is sharp, imaginative, dreamy and often marked by usage of dark colors and shades. A very noticeable aspect here is the way Rajiv grades the film in a rustic brownpage texture which is in connection with the story about a garment businessman and a printing press owner. There is everything you want — intimate close-ups, sweeping long shots, deft swish pans (the courtroom scenes in climax) and the favourite trolley moments (the train scenes in the 1st half). Mani Ratnam loves having scenes of trains and Guru captures beautiful trains from the yesteryears. Another beautiful visual which stayed with me is the Bhumi Puja visual of Guru’s factory in their village.

The Bhumi Puja close up

7. Samir Chanda’s art direction

The old Marine drive recreated in streets of Pondicherry

Another Mani Ratnam’s lieutenant and National Award winning art-director Samir Chanda is a big impression from Guru. Samir’s work hits the sky as the Mumbai of the 1950s and 60s is meticulously recreated with a special mention to the Marine Drive recreated on the streets of Pondicherry. Another brilliant piece of the work is the old train compartments created where the chemistry between Guru and Sujatha builds. My personal favorite however remains the beautiful transformation of Chettinad villages into rural Gujarat with mindblowing attention to detail.

The 1960’s Mumbai street

8. A R Rahman’s score

A still from Tere Bina sung by A R Rahman and Chinmayi

The discussion of Mani Ratnam’s work is incomplete without the Rahman’s music . Another genius find of the master film-maker, Guru’s soundtrack by Rahman is an eclectic mix of beautiful fusion numbers and wonderful western classics. The Sufi heavy Tere Bina and the slow melody Ay Hairathe beautifully unfold between the romance of Guru and Sujatha. Both these songs almost are eternal classics are sync perfectly for any occasion for us to hear. Another beautiful number is the Jaage Hain theme which runs across the film essentially as a background score but sums up the mind of Guru. But the thumping impact is the background score which sets in at key moments with the yells of Guru Bhai Guru Bhai Aagna Che. As the customary saying goes, A R Rahman reserves his classic best for his mentor Mani Ratnam.

Note: A R Rahman mentioned in an interview that Mani Ratnam decided to make space for Tere Bina song in the screenplay after hearing the song.

9. Mrs. Gurukanth Desai

The frisky Mr and Mrs Desai

Sujatha, played by Aishwarya Rai describes herself as a 50% shareholder in Shakti Corp in the film. Similarly, half of the film rests on Aishwarya Rai’s graceful shoulders. From a rebellious girl to a playful wife and finally to a tactful companion of Guru, Aishwarya Rai is silent, prayerful and full of grace in a character which literally sees and wades through every mood and moment of Guru. From the initial disagreements between the frisky couple to sweet nothings and the semi-philosophical arguments as the older couple, Mani Ratnam sets up a crackling chemistry between the lead pair. One of my favorite scenes again is the bedroom scene between them as they measure their paunches.

10. My Favorite Story Teller Mani Sir

Mani Ratnam explaining one of my favorite scenes in Guru

As much as I write and speak about Mani Ratnam, the more I feel there is unsaid and unwritten. As an ardent admirer of his work, Guru was an opportunity to discover a film-maker whose body of work stayed on with me. Guru’s most compelling asset is Mani Ratnam is because the way he chooses to tells the story. The biography opens as a dream, it cuts through song montages, quick accounts, grave confrontations and deep reflections. Probably one of the more verbose films of Ratnam, Guru discovers quintessential film-making in the most unabashed way. Nayakan, Iruvar and Guru shows why Mani Ratnam is a master of translating life stories onto screen like an auteur. Another unusual aspect of Mani Ratnam is the use of metaphor- the way he uses rain as a part of the narrative. The rain steps in the most crucial junctures of the film — the moment when Guru is winning against the IAS officer, the moment when Guru is hellbent on destroying the Contractors and the moment the shareholders are revolting against Guru. Two thumbs-up and massive respect to Mani Sir!

Hardcore Cinema Lover
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