I already put up one post about my favorite Aish-Abhi movie, but actually it is tied for favorite with Guru. There were a few months there when I watched Guru every night before bed, not even sure why. I just like it!
Kuch Naa Kaho is a good movie, that becomes a really good movie thanks to the Abhi-Aish chemistry. Guru is a great movie that becomes a lovable movie thanks to the Abhi-Aish chemistry. I actually think Vidya and Madhavan have a more palpable chemistry of the two couples in the film, but too much of their relationship would have over-whelmed the narrative. Whereas, in essence, Aish and Abhi’s relationship IS the narrative. Without that, you just have the story of a hero’s rise and rise, a purely intellectual exercise with no emotional depth.
Most people agree that Guru is either an unofficial biopic of Dhirubhai Ambani, or an unofficial remake of Citizen Kane. Probably both. But in either case, the depth and detail of the Aish and Abhishek relationship is the only original part of the film, the only thing that truly sets it apart from it’s real life/cinematic inspirations. I mean, I don’t know, possibly Dhirubhai and Kokilaben’s relationship was exactly like Aish and Abhi’s. But the point is, I DON’T know, and I don’t see how Ratman could have known either, so he put this film together with a relationship at its heart that was created out of nothing.
If you compare it with Citizen Kane, not only is the marriage plot obviously original, it becomes the single element that defines the difference between the two films. Citizen Kane, which I had to watch multiple times as I fought my way through two film degrees in American universities, is about a lonely little boy who grows up constantly searching for approval and understanding and love, and never quite finding it. I mean, it’s about a bunch of other stuff too, like the power of the American oligarchy and truth in art and incredibly ahead of their times film techniques. But in terms of character, it’s about a lonely little boy searching for approval and love and happiness through out his life.
(speaking of lonely little boys and film techniques… Notice how he is isolated from everyone else, and also how cool it is that the camera is seeing him so clearly, perfectly framed in the window)
In Citizen Kane, he first finds approval through his best friend and partner in his newspaper, Joseph Cotton. And then that approval expands to include the people of New York who read and love his paper. Later, he outgrows them and instead finds approval and love with his new young wife. He eventually tires of her and is left lonely and ambitious, to seek approval through business successes and politics. After years, even this pales for him, and instead he needs approval from a sweet young aspiring singer who sees him as a kind man and becomes his mistress. And finally, when even she has left him, he looks for it in “stuff”, buying priceless antiques and works of art and filling his house and warehouses with them.
But Guru asks the question, “what if Kane had been able to make a go of his marriage?” Or rather, it asks “what if the director of the film actually believed in marriage in the best possible way?” Guru starts out the same as Kane. Our hero has a close male friend, they are young planners and dreamers together. This could be his partner and companion for life. But then, their life takes a twist, to raise money for their business, our hero agrees to marry his friends older sister for her dowry. He barely seems to think this decision through, and isn’t planning a real “marriage”, simply to leave her in the village while her brother serves as his real partner in life.
In Welles’ Citizen Kane, a decision like this would have been applauded. His wife is a wet blanket who drags him down, Joseph Cotton is his spiritual partner he challenges him to be a greater person. One of the greatest tragedies of the film is how he and Cotton grow apart. But that’s because Welles was 26 when he made Citizen Kane, and had just gotten out of a brief early marriage, and Ratnam was 51 and had been married almost 20 years when he made Guru. For Welles, a wife is something to ties you down and pulls you away from what you really want to be doing. For Ratnam, a wife is what pulls you towards what you should be doing.
(Also, his wife is a really good actress and was in Vanaprastham)
And that’s why Guru is not a story of our hero constantly searching and failing to find approval, but rather our hero gaining strength from his realization that he truly only needs the approval of one person, his wife, and he will always have that.
It’s not an immediate thing (love never is in Ratnam films). The marriage is a business arrangement on his part, and an act of desperation and gratitude on hers (she had previously tried to elope and been jilted, breaking her heart and making her unmarriageable in the eyes of society, thus the large dowry for whoever was willing). They are both well aware that this is not a love match. She thinks he is a nice friend of her brothers who is large-minded enough to overlook her scandal, while he thinks she is a spicy interesting woman who he doesn’t have time for because he has to make his fortune. Only, then she insists on traveling to Bombay with him, and he agrees. And it starts to change. Slowly, scene by scene, we see that while her brother, his supposed partner, is cowardly and cautious, she is always challenging him to look farther ahead, to move forward, and believes in everything he tries. And in the end, he moves away from her brother, not because he is turning away from his true self, but because he is turning towards it.
Which is why Ratman (who haaaaaates song sequences), put a song here to mark the importance and depth of their feelings. It’s not a something you can put into words. I know, because I have tried to describe this plot to people and why I find it so romantic, and it makes no sense. He marries for money and she marries out of desperation, and when she finds out it was just for the dowry, she leaves him. And then he goes after her and brings her back. And that’s it, that’s the whole romance in the film (except for one bit right at the end that makes me cry), but there is so much that goes unspoken, that is in the little bits and pieces of their characters and performances.
By the time there is the big fight at the party, when Abhishek announces that his business is expanding and her brother reacts with anger at not being consulted and blurts out the truth of their marriage, we have seen so much unspoken between them. Things like, Abhishek rushing home to show her his name in the paper, to share his business triumphs with her. We have seen her blossom in her marriage, move confidently through her own house and her own kitchen, give blessings to their guests and talk back to his business associates. Nothing needs to be said for the audience to know how they feel about each other, and nothing needs to be said between them for them to know how they feel.
And when it all comes to a head, it is the silence that says the most. First, when Abhishek is confronted with the truth of his initial motivations, when she asks him if it is true, if he would have married her no matter what she was like just for the money, and he is silent. This is a character who is never silent, who reacts to every challenge with a big blustery speech, but when it comes to his marriage, it cuts to the bone and he has nothing to say. Aish may not be able to see it in that moment, but for the audience, it is his very inability to speak that says the most, that should tell her how much he really cares, that he is literally struck dumb by emotion in that moment.
And it is the silence that resolves it between them as well. The gorgeous gorgeous “Tere Bina” plays out with no words spoken between them. She has left him and is not sending him messages or calls, and also not speaking to her mother, her brother, or anyone else. He is alone and the silence in his office and rooms is deafening. But their hearts are crying out for each other, which is why we need the song to show it
And the resolution is in silence as well. The point isn’t what they say, it is what they do. He leaves his ambitions, his obsession with power and success and the glory and challenge of capitalism, to personally travel back and bring her home. He doesn’t have to tell her how much he needs her, how whatever his initial motivations for marriage are, she is the most important thing to him now, he can show her.
And then it goes down a Citizen Kane path, with power corrupting, and the champions of the underdog who helped him at the beginning start to go after him now, trying to keep him honest and to rein in his power a little. Only, unlike in Citizen Kane, he wins at the end. And it is because he has his wife with him. Not a friend who you may outgrow, or a mistress who may get bored of never fully sharing your life, but a wife. The person who hundreds of years of society have dictated as your life partner. And when he is broken down and falling at the end, she is the one who saves him.
I absolutely love the last 15 minutes of this movie, and there are two moments that just kill me, because they are such a perfect show of how this couple loves and understands each other in a way no one else does. First, after our hero has a heart-attack, the government investigators insist on seeing him in his hospital room. Aish helps him to respond and sign his name. And then, as they are leaving, she promises that before the trial, she will have him up and healthy and ready to fight again. In the moment, it sounds cold and cruel, that this woman is going to force a poor man on his deathbed to regain his strength just so he can fight a court case. But we know this character, and we know that it is what he would want, that while he cannot speak, she is going to speak for him, and decide for him, and do what he wants, not what she wants.
And she does get him up and around through whatever means she has at hand (including bringing in his children to force him awake), in time for the final testimony, the make or break moment of his life, which is also the most quietly romantic moment of the film.
(What I love about this scene is that she is clearly using her adorable children and their father’s love for them in the coldest and most calculated manner to try to get him to work harder on his physical therapy. See how her eyes are looking at him, not in a loving way, but in a “is this working? Should I make them cry louder?” kind of way)
At the final trial, the judges ask her by what right she is there as well, helping him testify and, for the audience, this is such an odd question! She is there because she is his second half, his partner in all things, his one true soulmate! Who else would be there? But before she can answer with some version of this explanation, he stops her, and leans over and whispers in her ear. And she gives him this beautiful look of surprise and joy, and then he nods to confirm it, and she turns back to the microphones with a lovely smile.
It’s one of the biggest marks of the intimacy of this relationship, the privacy and closeness between them, that even we, the audience, don’t get to hear what he tells her exactly, how he breaks the news. But we do know enough to know what it means and why it is so important, and why she is smiling like that. She has a right to speak for him, she explains, because she is the 51% owner of his business, an “initial investor and promoter”.
He is sharing with her, officially and in the eyes of the law, the most important part of his life. The business we have seen him fight and push to create and grow. He is acknowledging her part in his struggle, that 51% of the victory belongs to her. And he didn’t tell her until just now, he did it not because he wanted to show his love for her by a big romantic gesture, but because he actually things of her as the majority owner of his business, and the initial investor.
But, even more than that, he is resolving the only fight they have ever had in their marriage. He is saying that he doesn’t want her dowry, that he wants her, on her own. That it was always her money and he was just investing it for her. It’s lovely! And while it is the meaning of their marriage, and marriage in general, it is also what it means to be human, to be a good giving person, to notice and appreciate all the other people who are part of your success.
And that’s why Guru-the-person succeeds at the end where Citizen Kane-the-person fails. And also why Guru-the-film is always going to speak to me personally more deeply than Citizen Kane-the film (sorry long parade of film teachers who made me watch it over and over again!). Guru was never lonely, he was never alone, he was always supported by others and he paid back their support. Which is the bigger meaning of the film, that our hero wasn’t simply trying to build a business empire, but that he was trying to raise all of India with him, to help his small stockholders, the taxi drivers and sweet show owners, grow with him. Kane ends up surrounded by his possessions in a huge empty house. Guru ends up surrounded by his family in a huge stadium filled with supporters.