South India’s leading director, Mani Ratnam, again ventures north into the Hindi scene with “Guru,” a rags-to-riches drama typically seasoned with a political message. As in his previous “Yuva” (2004), pic furnishes lead Abhishek Bachchan with a powerhouse role, here as an ambitious kid from the sticks who forgets his ethics on the way to the top. Strongly cast, long-limbed yarn contains some of Ratnam’s best stuff in its first half but script weaknesses mar the later going and film’s overall impact. Beyond the Bollywood circuit, festivals may bite on this, as with the helmer’s past movies.
In a Gujarati village in 1951, teenager Gurukant Desai flubs his exams and decides to make his way in the outside world. In Istanbul, he starts working in the spice trade and is then offered a job with a Western oil company. In a decision that becomes the pic’s underlying political message, Guru (now played by Bachchan) says he doesn’t want to work “for the white man” and hightails it back to Gujarat with his savings.
There, he bumps into and soon marries Sujata (Aishwarya Rai), sister of his best friend, Jignesh (Arya Babbar), to get his hands on her sizable dowry so he can go into business in Bombay. From their first scene, when they bump into each other on a train, there’s a palpable chemistry between Bachchan and Rai that emotionally motors the movie, with the latter fairly glowing as the spirited but loyal wife.
In late ’50s Bombay, Guru barges his way into the cloth-trading scene, despite opposition from entrenched interests like the powerful Contractor family. Boldly, Guru takes a gamble on the future success of polyester over cotton and sets up a textile factory via a public offering. Ten years later, he’s in a position to reject an offer from the Contractors and even orchestrates a press campaign against them, but his arrogance and growing corruption turn onetime supporter Manik Das Gupta (Mithun Chakraborty), publisher of a powerful newspaper, against him.
This first half shows Ratnam at his narrative best, smoothly covering a lot of story while always building character, and with a softer southern edge to the picture than usual Bollywood fare. Aside from an opening belly dance by guest star Mallika Sherawat, the musical numbers, both featuring Rai, also focus on character rather than pure spectacle.
Second half is less convincing dramatically, as Gupta and his editor (Madhavan) start their press campaign uncovering Guru’s misdeeds, and in 1980, the middle-aged Guru is brought before a corruption commission. Though a lot is heard about Guru’s bad practices, the viewer is hardly made privy to them, and thus unable to take an emotional position. Several sideplots and characters, including Jignesh, are underwritten or disappear completely.
In Bachchan’s perf, which shows all the lanky, offbeat charm of his father, vet Amitabh, Guru comes across as an ambitious guy whose heart is in the right place and whose politics are on the side of the ordinary man. Guru’s courtroom speech (aimed squarely at contempo Indians) becomes a prophetic call for the country to take care of its own destiny, sans begging to the West.
Pic’s strongest suit is its performances, with top-billed Chakraborty as the publisher giving the younger Bachchan a run for his money. Though he’s in only a few scenes, Rajendra Gupta is also strong as Guru’s stern schoolteacher father.
Score by Ratnam’s regular composer, A.R. Rahman, is typically rhythmic rather than melodic, effectively propelling the drama. Sharp widescreen lensing by Rajiv Menon in both Turkey and India is aces.