Guru is a Mani Ratnam movie, released in 2007, starring Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. While Abhishek Bachchan isn’t always considered to be a great actor (something I occasionally disagree with), very few people dispute that his performance in Guru is fantastic, one that holds up even today.
This is a fairly popular movie. It’s also a movie I had a lot of conflicted feelings about, back when I saw it twelve years ago. Because of some recent circumstances, I recently sat down and watched it, to see if all those problems of mine would resurface.
They did. But not in a way I was expecting.
I’m not going to do it now, either, but I can say that I’m a software engineer in Bangalore right now. If you placed bets on what I did and where I lived, solely based off the knowledge that I live in India, there would be a 78% chance you’d be right.
And yes, I made up that number.
One of these days, while entering my small shared room after coming back from the office, I saw a tall figure sitting on my bed. It was a man I never, ever expected to meet.
Good evening, Abhishek Bachchan. Is this a good time to talk?
I’ve come all the way from Mumbai to meet you, so take a guess.
Right. Okay. So, uh, why would you come to meet a middle-class nobody in a Bangalore triple sharing paying-guest room?
Take a guess.
...was it because I called you a “black hole of personality” in my last article about Dhoom 2?
...well, I’m sorry about that, but I’m not going to take it back.
Who do you think you are? Have you ever made a movie? Have you ever acted in a Bollywood blockbuster?
I haven’t. But, with all due respect, you don’t make movies solely for people who make movies, or for people who act in Bollywood blockbusters.
And I think you’re a great actor! You don’t have good roles in a lot of movies, but you’re a pretty great comedic performer! I really like your performance in Dostana and Happy New Year!
And what about my dramatic roles?
Well, you were pretty good in Yuva.
What about Guru? Have you seen that movie?
Most people tell me they think my performance there was fantastic.
It’s good! I just have complicated feelings on the movie as a whole.
Well… it’s been twelve years. What I remember of it might not be as accurate.
Then watch it.
Chapter 1: Daddy Issues
Guru is an interesting movie. It’s a story that’s about a businessman’s journey from rags to riches, yes, but it’s also a movie about greed and corruption, showing the protagonist doing various morally dubious things in his scramble to get to the top. It’s an interesting premise for a movie, especially one designed for mass appeal.
Here’s the thing - I’m not sure it succeeded.
Guru is a story about a man named Guru (big surprise) who’s always hungry for success and progress. He leaves the country to work in Turkey despite his father’s opposition (and insistence that Guru will remain a failure all his life). After learning the tricks of the trade and getting accolades and a promotion, he decides to come back to India to start a business, despite his father’s dismissal (and insistence that Guru will never be a successful businessman). He comes to Bombay with money to invest, and is turned away by the silk traders (who insist that Guru will never join them to find success). Undeterred, he makes sure that any resistance to the position is taken care of, getting the owner of a newspaper outlet (The Independent), played by Mithun Chakraborty, to defame the filthy rich union president that’s barring his entry, and makes sure the corrupt IAS officer that tries to shut them down is harassed into submission (despite the rich president’s assurance that Guru won’t be able to take care of any future problems).
The rags abandoned, the riches acquired, Guru is, after a small montage, a successful, popular and influential businessman. All the antagonistic men in his life - all of whom are, with the exception of the rich union president, old, father-figure-like people - have promised him that he’ll fail, and that drive to prove them wrong has brought him to this moment.
And then the father of the rich union ex-president insists his journey ends here and offers to buy his company from under him, and Guru snaps. Out of pure spite, he makes sure every newspaper outlet defames the man and his company, to the fullest extent possible.
This angers the owner of The Independent, and he promises Guru that his company will be taken down. All of a sudden, we, the audience, are told that Guru’s company has been corrupt all along, operating off bribes and governmental favours, avoiding taxes and bullying its way to success.
Guru takes this promise as yet another challenge to overcome, forging ahead with his brazen defiance of the law, manipulating and pressuring people into serving him.
All this is extremely interesting, and fairly surprising for a movie that, from the beginning, postured itself as a feel-good story about succeeding against all odds. So let’s take a break here, and go back to one aspect of the story we haven’t covered yet.
Chapter 2: The Tragedy Of Sujata
Earlier in the movie, when Guru comes back to India to start a job, he needs to gather more funds to start a business of his own. While his friend can’t lend him any money, he mentions that his father is saving up a lot of money for his sister’s wedding dowry.
Earlier still, we see Sujata, full of happiness, about to run away from the village and live a life with some unknown person, who sends her a letter stating he’s too much of a coward to escape. Devastated, yet undaunted, she catches the next train and runs away, only to be caught by her family members at the next station (snitched out by Guru, coincidentally on the train, who told on her without knowing or caring about the situation or consequences). She’s mocked in the village for daring to be a woman who runs away from home, but Guru comes in a few days later, with an arranged marriage proposal in hand.
Later, in the movie, Guru and Sujata’s arranged marriage results in love (which was par for the course in movies that aired more than ten years back). The illusion shatters when her brother, angry at Guru for keeping him out of any decision making in the business, reveals the truth to her - he didn’t marry her because he pitied her condition (which the movie itself calls the better reason - it’s implied that she starts falling in love with him because he made the decision to marry her even though she was socially disgraced). He married her purely for the money.
I want to take some time here to invite you to put yourself in her shoes - Sujata is a woman living in an age where she’s expected to stay at home and do nothing but cook, clean and be a good daughter and a good wife. Her small attempt at rebellion, which must have been so huge for her, falls through because the man she was eloping with didn’t have her courage. And now she finds out that she was nothing more than a means to an end for another man, someone she grew to trust. She runs back to her village with this immense feeling of shock and shame, this feeling of being a mere object, passed around to others for their convenience.
And then, a song sequence later, Guru comes back to the village because he missed her, and she runs back into his arms. The film never really cares about her perspective again - no more than her role in the movie, which is the same role she’s expected to play in the society of the time, too -
A loving, caring wife who supports her husband in whatever he does. No matter what.
Chapter 3: I Was Framed
His underhanded tactics are exposed. His factory is closed down. His face accompanies the worst possible headlines in the papers. This causes great pain to him and the people in his life - his friend tries to commit suicide, his wife is humiliated by Mithun Chakraborty's character when she implores him to make peace, and his shareholders lose vast sums of money.
Here’s where the issue of framing comes in.
Throughout all this, we need to remember this - these things are happening solely because Guru chose to employ those underhanded tactics in the first place. He’s the one avoiding taxes and putting government officials in his pocket to use them as he sees fit. We even see a scene where he subtly blackmails a government official with knowledge of his father’s shady dealings, to manipulate him into doing whatever he needs for his company.
And here’s the thing - at no point does the movie itself actually seem to condemn anything he does.
A reminder - the corruption reveal comes out of left field in the scene where R. Madhavan’s character is introduced for the first time. Before this, the framing of the movie shows Guru as an underdog railing against the rich elite of Bombay, and even his harassment of the IAS officer is framed as heroic, because the officer had been brought out by the union ex-president and all the fabric traders were thrown out of their livelihoods as a result.
And we never really see all the things R. Mahadevan’s character accuses Guru of doing. There are no deductions or reveals - all the accusations are made matter-of-factly after any of the events they refer to have seemingly occurred. Even the subtle blackmail scene I was referring to earlier is done in a very oblique way - and it’s not something the average audience member is going to pick up on until a rewatch.
The framing gets insidiously bad, however, when we see the results of Guru’s actions onscreen. Because we really don’t. We only see distant crowds calling him a thug and a smuggler, and even then, the movie is more concerned with showing us how sad he looks through the whole thing. We get told about the attempted hostile takeovers of other companies that he’s attempting, but even that’s just a thing you can only faintly catch other people talking about. All that’s shown of Guru, most of the time, is either him being cute with his wife, him being cute with his daughters, or him delivering inspirational speeches to people.
The only thing the movie is concerned about is watching Guru’s pain as he tries to deal with all the nasty newspaper people calling him corrupt and evil.
Even the newspaper cast, for the most part, aren’t depicted very sympathetically. Mithun Chakraborty’s character, the owner of the Independent, seems more obsessed with one-upping Guru’s character than with exposing the truth - he only starts caring when his newspaper writes a piece dictated by Guru without his permission, and he happily humiliates Aishwarya Rai’s character when she comes to him and pleads for peace, by calling him up and accusing him of sending his wife to beg, despite her desperate please to keep her arrival secret. Even his “independent” refrain is broken later, when his daughter (played by Vidya Balan) is seemingly kicked out of the house (despite being a Multiple Sclerosis patient) because, in her own words, her choosing to marry R. Madhavan’s character showed she was - and she quotes her father as saying this - “too independent”. He only shows up once in the same scene with her afterwards, when she’s dead and being cremated.
And R. Madhavan’s character? As said before, literally all his allegations of the company only come up when he’s onscreen. We’re never really shown any of the things he describes Guru’s company as doing - he shows up onscreen, explains some violation of the law, and either stages fake photographs to act as stand-ins for the newspaper articles, or coldly refers to his desire to see Guru’s empire fall.
To be fair, he is shown as being sympathetic for marrying Vidya Balan’s wheelchair-bound character, but in the absence of any proper relationship-establishing scenes, it’s implied, again, that he’s marrying her because he pities her (something this movie already considers heroic). And that’s not even getting to him forcibly kissing Vidya Balan in the rain as she’s crying and constantly saying no to his marriage proposal (an unfortunate artifact of Bollywood’s romantic obsession with the no-means-yes cliche).
And then we get to…
Chapter 4: Just Justifications
Not very long for Bollywood.
So, what did you think?
Well, I had trouble thinking - it’s a bit hard when there’s someone staring at me the whole time I’m trying to watch a movie with them in it.
Don’t you write this stuff for a living?
It’s 2019. You think many people can write for a living?
Touché. So, what did you think of my performance?
It’s pretty good! Again, my problem with the movie isn’t your performance-
And what did you think of that final courtroom speech scene?
Well, I - hm. Uh. Well. Hm.
That was, uh, the scene I had the most problems with.
The speech itself is… quite something. Guru rails against the elitist structures of the rich business class. He talks about all the problems faced by someone of his origins, being tossed around and forced to suck up to people, never really having any options afforded to him because of his class. He talks about being punished because he’s a common man, from a common place, and he talks about being punished because he decide to go ahead and forge his own path, because none were provided to him.
And he also talks about not knowing the terminologies being thrown around by the judges in their accusations against him, like public debentures or taxes.
And the whole illusion shatters, if it hadn’t already.
Taxes aren’t some “elitist thing”. The fact that the movie shows Guru as being a shrewd businessman learning the tricks of his trade from overseas, and then claims that he didn’t pay business taxes because he was “too illiterate”? That’s complete bullshit, and doesn’t even do a good job of absolving him of his sins. He’s basically pleading ignorant in his whole rant because of his village origins - something which doesn’t even work because he has been part of the elite class for most of his life by now.
He’s shown to be a crorepati at the very least. He rides helicopters and Mercedes cars and delivers speeches to thousands of people about how successful his company is. He’s not a common man - not anymore. And his crimes have only increased with his prosperity. He isn't a "common man" anymore, and hasn't been one for a very long while. And his lack of English proficiency doesn't change that.
And the clincher? His rousing common-businessman speech ends with the conclusion that he’s done everything for the common Indian shareholder - and he’s also vindicated, just before this scene, where he’s approached by a man who talks about how his shares have helped him pay for his daughter’s marriages. All this, and the movie completely forgets about the earlier scene with the thousands of shareholders shouting at Guru because his crimes have resulted in his share prices falling. Yes, his shares helped people get rich, but what about when they did the exact opposite - all because of decisions Guru himself made?
To pick on an earlier point - the film and its script is much like his wife, Sujata, in that regard. All it cares about is Guru, the person, being happy and deified, as much as possible. It’s a loving, caring movie that supports its hero in whatever he does. No matter what.
Which, for a supposedly morally complex movie, just comes across as being half-assed.
So yeah. I think the movie brings up the fact that its protagonist is a complicated character who’s done many bad things in the name of success, but it’s too afraid of showing a morally dubious protagonist, so it stops short of actually doing anything interesting with the role.
Good for you.
No, I mean that with all sincerity. I never expected to change your mind - these are my views, and my views alone. Why should it matter what a guy with five rupees in his wallet thinks of your movies?
Because, as you said, I’m also making these movies for people like you.
But I guess your views are still better than the 200-word YouTube comments on Indian music videos.
Probably, yeah. And only 1% as many people read my articles!
So, will you write an article about this movie?
Will you come to my flat if I do?
Because this was a huge waste of time.
Oh. Well, true.
And with that, Abhishek Bachchan extended his fangs, spread his huge, black, papery wings, and left the room via the window.
Huh. So should I call him Abhishek Bat-chan?
There was an audible groan from the air.