Who was Dhirubhai?
Was he, in the words of RÂ Goenka someone who “did not just rape the system but made it his mistress” through systematic manipulation of the “license raj”, that claustrophobic legacy of Nehruvian socialism and the corruption it institutionalized, to stifle competition and to advance his interests?
Or was he a visionary who built up a corporate empire through Machiavellian opportunism, cunning and sheer hard work, seizing opportunities when none existed, breaking the back of the traditional cabal of Indian business families and the hold of financial institutions by raising money from the people, a man who inspired hate and derision not for how many he bribed but because the rise of the poorly-educated “hawker waiting outside the cabin” to one of the richest men in the world was just too much for the established gentry to swallow?
In the lavishly mounted “Guru”, Maniratnam (arguably India’s finest mainstream movie director) tries to answer these questions through the fable of Gurukant Desai or Gurubhai, a thinly-disguised surrogate for Dhirubhai Ambani, challenging you to interpret this man as either a crooked businessman who justified his brazen transgressions of the law by self-servingly appealing to a higher ideal (the freedom to make money) or a revolutionary who broke the anaconda-like grip of the permit raaj (you needed a permit to import machinery, you needed a permit to increase production, you needed a permit to make more profit) on Indian businesses by showing how the system itself made it impossible to run a successful enterprise without engaging in corruption.
One of the many pleasures in watching Guru is trying to figure out the mapping of the fictitious characters to those in real life: whether Mithun Chakraborty’s Manikdas Gupta is Ramanath Goenka, whether Madhavan’s Shyam Saxena is Arun Shourie and whether the “10 minute meeting” with a certain incorruptible politician is a reference to an actual event that has since become a part of Indian political folklore —a particularly unique experience since usually commercial Hindi movies are far removed from anything that has happened or has a remote chance of ever happening. But “Guru” would be just as fascinating if it was a work of pure fiction standing as it is on the shoulders of some spectacularly powerful acting performances, credit for which should go in no small measure to the director (in addition to the actors of course).
After all, if there is a movie in which Aishwarya does a great job, can you not salute the director for just that ?
Mithun Chakraborty shows the world what a powerful actor he can be, once he frees himself from the clutches of the TLV Prasads and the Kanti Shahs of the world, by essaying the role of editor Manikdas Gupta, Gurubhai’s bete noire, as he brings a measure of vulnerability, honesty and determination to the character in the very limited screen-time he is given.
However this movie belongs to Abhishek Bachchan who, playing the title role, rises spectacularly to the occasion, getting underneath the skin of his character and metamorphosing in front of the camera from a wide-eyed, brash wannabe to a larger-than-life corporate legend. Whether it be gently mocking the committee investigating charges against him, or reminiscing with Aishwarya about innocent times gone by, or sparring with Mithun or Madhavan, Abhishek manages to shine through in every scene.
While technically top-notch (after all this is a Maniratnam movie), “Guru” does suffer from being straitjacketed by the expectations of commercial cinema : the innocent village belle getting drenched in the rain, the Gujarati ethnic dance sequence, Ms. Oversized-Potatoes-on-Sticks pretending to be a belly dancer, Ms. Rai’s backstory and most importantly, the totally superficial character played by Vidya Balan and her love angle with Madhavan that eats into time that could have been used to show, for instance, how “Manikdas Gupta” in his manic rush to finish off “Gurubhai” ended up playing into his hands.
However these minor faults are swept away by the tidal wave force of Maniratnam’s craft as he adroitly, with shades of grey and brown and an occasional dab of smudging white, paints an inspiring portrait of one of post-independent India’s most important historic figures, who from dust and dreams created the nation’s first Fortune 500 company.