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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Guru’ (2007): My Problem with Biopics

Directed by: Mani Ratnam || Produced by: Mani Ratnam, G. Srinivasan

Screenplay by: Mani Ratnam, Vijay Krishna Acharya || Starring: Mithun Chakraborty, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Ranganathan Madhavan, Vidya Balan

Music by: A. R. Rahman || Cinematography: Rajiv Menon || Edited by: A. Sreekar Prasad || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 162 minutes

One of my least favorite feature-film screenplay formulas is the biopic, or biographical film, which Quentin Tarantino once described asbig excuses for actors to win Oscars. [They’ve] corrupted cinema,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. A quintessential form of Oscar-bait, the biopic dramatizes the life — often the complete adult life if not the entire life — of a famous/notable historical figure, whether portrayed by name (often to glorify) or under some sort of thinly veiled alias (perhaps to avoid libelous lawsuits). My general disinterest in the biopic format is related to how uncinematic most people’s lives are, including famous people, how difficult it is to rework someone’s life story into a 120-180 page script (i.e. a 2-3 hour movie); even longwinded dramas about fictional personas (e.g. Forrest Gump [1994]) done in the style of biographical filmmaking, where a film’s narrative structure moves from plot-point to plot-point with little cause-and-effect reasoning (this happens, and then this happens, and then that happens… ) drive me up the wall. On the other hand, limited or mini-series on streaming may have better luck with these types of storytelling (e.g. Pam and Tommy [2022]), but those examples seem to be the exception to the dull biopic rule.

A promotional still from Guru’s most tonally inappropriate musical number: “Mayya

Enter Mani Ratnam’s Guru, a semi-fictionalized biographical drama “inspired by” the life of Indian business tycoon and textile industrialist, Dhirajlal Hirachand Ambani, also known as Dhirubhai Ambani, who founded the multinational conglomerate, Reliance Industries, in 1973, which remains to this day (Christmas 2022) the largest public company in the country by both market capitalization and revenue. Given the man’s humble career origins not long after Indian independence in 1947, as well as his high-profile civilian honors by the federal government, I feared Guru would be a typical longwinded biopic that lionized its subject (see Omung Kumar’s PM Narendra Modi [2019]) to the point of bland propaganda, but thankfully I was wrong… well, half wrong.

Guru, starring Abhishek Bachchan in the title role as a renamed yet obvious dramatization of Dhirubhai, portrays its eponymous lead in a positive light in total by story’s end, but allots plenty of screentime for non-villainous supporting characters (e.g. Ranganathan Madhavan) to antagonize him in a nod to real-life Indian Express investigative journalist Swaminathan Gurumurthy, who covered the aggressive, legally gray expansion of Reliance throughout the 1980s. This back-and-forth tug between audience sympathy for and suspicion of Bachchan’s Dhirubhai-surrogate is much of what powers Guru through its long, deliberately paced 162-minute running time, so much so I would argue Madhavan’s complicated relationship with Bachchan’s protagonist (the former marries the daughter [Vidya Balan] of the latter’s diegetic mentor [Mithun Chakraborty]) is the most important element of the entire screenplay.

It’s far more important than the romantic subplot between Bachchan and then girlfriend, later wife Aishwarya Rai, as well as the rest of Guru’s forgettable minor characters, anyway. While I was pleased at the balanced, dramatic perspective co-writers Ratnam and Vijay Krishna Acharya took to their quasi-mythical subject-matter, they fell victim to most every other biopic cliché in the book. The movie introduces and then discards numerous smaller roles (e.g. Rajendra Gupta, Aarya Babbar) who serve little purpose in the story, burns the opening twenty minutes on a 1950s prologue set and shot in Turkey that goes nowhere, and bookends Bachchan’s character development with obvious digital composite shots that contrast poorly with the memorable location-photography throughout the rest of the film.

What best explains Guru’s popularity outside its true to life inspirations are its well known stars and stylish, well shot musical numbers; as scenic as the melodic dance sequences are, however, they don’t add much characterization to the starring cast nor advance the story in any meaningful way, let alone compare to the cinematographic energy of Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998) or the better works of Sanjay Bhansali (e.g. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam [1999], Devdas [2002]). Like most of the expansive supporting cast, they’re little more than colorful filler to hold the audience’s attention when the story gets boring.

Earlier in the film and before they slap on some of the laziest old-age makeup I’ve ever seen, Bachchan and Rai’s scenes together have good chemistry and prime the narrative for a rewarding, emotional on-screen romance that never comes.

Other minor directorial details like Abhishek and Aishwarya’s comical old-age makeup don’t add much to the final product, nor does the cheesy, forgettable speech Bachchan shouts at a government inquiry committee that supposedly validates all his character’s actions throughout the story. Guru, for all its popular songs and good-looking stars, suffers the usual shortcomings of standard biographical feature-films, a format that seems to exist only to bolster the ego of its lead actors. Regardless of how you feel about Guru’s subject-matter though, the film itself is way too long, poorly paced, and wastes the majority of its supporting cast on pointless throwaway roles, including Rai’s love-interest. I’ll give writer-producer-director Ratnam points for not lionizing his movie’s central figure — a flawed, contradictory protagonist is always more interesting than a simplistic, whitewashed golden boy — but this sizeable period-piece never evolves beyond that and isn’t worth the massive time investment.

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SUMMARY & RECOMENDATION: Longwinded and yet surprisingly shallow, Guru is characteristic of most South Asian and Hollywood biopics that don’t realize how dated their source material will feel not long after their release. Almost the entire supporting cast are wasted, but Aishwarya Rai’s female lead is perhaps the most frustrating, making one wish the filmmakers had traded away Guru’s expendable prologue, Mallika Sherawat’s item song, and a handful of other inconsequential scenes.

However… Abhishek Bachchan, for whom I’ve never cared as an actor, gives a decent lead performance in the title character, and his antagonistic rivalry with Ranganathan Madhavan holds your attention.

—> I’m starting to think Mani Ratnam’s filmography is overrated between this and Roja (1995), as Guru is NOT RECOMMENDED.

? What exactly did Guru do through his business that was illegal? I noted many vague comments about undeclared shipping cargo, stock manipulations, etc., but few, if any specific demonstrations of his corrupt or dishonest entrepreneurial behavior.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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