How much you enjoy a film depends perhaps lesser on how well it is made, and more on what expectations you went inside with. Any movie that equals or exceeds your expectations is a good film. Mani Ratnam will perhaps forever be battling this functioning of the human mind. The expectations are always high, and what becomes a good film if someone else made it would be just standard or expected if Mani Ratnam makes it. He has to be exceptional each time.
Guru, however, is not a great film even without that prism on. It's not tender or about human emotions like Anjali, Amrutha
or Geetanjali, and it is not a gripping entertainer like Dalapati, Nayakudu or Roja. It is a story set in a business milieu in India that you'd best not be reminded of - the pre-liberalization license-permit-quota raj. It's slow, it's not really slick or fleshed out well, and it doesn't show you the things that you really want to see. It's just an ordinarily narrated story of a successful businessman.
Mani Ratnam has been talking a lot about how his film is not inspired by the story of a certain businessman. Banish any such thought from your head - it is 100% inspired by him. And the counsel for the defence is the country's most respected filmmaker. Not that there is anything wrong with it, especially when the plaintiff is the government. It is just that this is not a film that focuses on what you want to know about him, what you want to learn from him.
Gurukant Desai (Abhishek Bachchan) is a school failure from Idhar village in Gujarat, who leaves for Turkey in 1951 to work, and learns the ropes of the petrol/textile business there as he works for a European company for 13 years. He then returns to India to start his own business, and for lack of capital, offers to marry his friend's sister Sujatha (Aishwarya Rai) without even seeing her, so he can get the dowry.
He tries to enter fabric trading, but finds that the reins to entry are held by some very rich people. With help from Manikdas Gupta (Mithun Chakravarthy), an honest newspaper editor who likes this enterprising youngster, he breaks into that quasi-oligarchy, and there's no turning back anymore.
He soon gets into production of the cloth that he is trading, starting Shakti Polyestor with money raised from the capital markets through public issues. The company grows at a phenomenal pace, and Gurubhai, as he's known now, becomes the most prominent businessman in India. The next logical step is entering petrochemical manufacturing, and sure enough, his vertical integration takes him there too. If the movie were a reel longer, we'd have been talking oil exploration too. Sure, all characters are fictitious.
However, his own mentor, Manikdas Gupta, starts hitting back at Gurubhai when he realizes that the latter is extremely unscrupulous in his dealings. A young journalist with Gupta, Shyam Saxena (Madhavan), dedicates himself to bringing Gurubhai down, and sees significant success with time as eventually Gurubhai's businesses are shut down. And when his 30 lakh hitherto hero-worshipping shareholders turn irate, Guru suffers a paralytic attack.
What you would want to see in the tale of a highly successful businessman is the genius that takes him there. Guru glosses over all that - the number of factories just multiplies in 10 seconds, and there is no reference to the hurdles, the risks, the people-handling skills, the thinking-on-the-feet, the ethical dilemmas that feature in the process. The film looks more like a wikipedia page on the character rather than an insight into what it takes to build an empire. And at no stage is it a page-turner.
If that is not the intended payoff, then it's hard to say what is. The relationships are all either rationed or forced in. It's a moot point just why Vidya Balan is in the film (she plays a handicapped girl). For most of the film, Aishwarya Rai is like the First Lady of a state - she's visible, but doing nothing significant.
Guru argues his case in the end to a judicial commission as that of a person stifled by a corrupt bureaucracy, a man who did what he had to do to be able to do business, to grow fast. If you've seen The Aviator
, you can't avoid some comparison. The Aviator dealt with a brief period in the life of billionaire Howard Hughes, and ends similarly, but had much more depth in characterization.
At the end of 2 hours and 45 minutes of Guru, however, you don't feel much pathos for Gurukant Desai any which way - he's too blurred, and your sympathy for him doesn't go beyond what you feel naturally for the hero of any movie. Also, why does the commission let him go on the basis of a mere senti speech?
Abhishek Bachchan cannot bring much intensity to Guru - it's hard to say if that is his fault or that of the script. Maybe the emoting came out the way it was intended to, but, well, it doesn't do much in terms of being impactful.
Aishwarya is good in what she's needed to do. Mithun Chakravarthy is a pleasure to watch in roles befitting his age, and this is one. All other performances are good, as they always are in Mani Ratnam films. The music by A R Rahman is not run-of-the-mill, and we'll stop there. And the period look comes out fairly well in the film.
Guru is worth a watch if you are a fan of anything with Mani Ratnam's minimum standards. It's certainly not his best, and it's hard to be as emphatic about the other extreme.