I say “rerun”, but I actually did quite a bit of rewriting of this review, so it’s mostly totally new. Hopefully you like it!
Guru is intended to be a biopic, the story of Dhirubhai Ambani slightly fictionalized. But the heart of the film is the story of two people, Abhishek and Aishwarya, over the decades of their marriage. It is his treatment of Aishwarya that reveals the true innate justice of Abhishek’s character, and it is Aishwarya’s feelings towards him that explain why so many people are loyal to him. This is a story of male-female pairs, Vidya and Mithun Chakraborty, Vidya and Madhavan, and Aish and Abhishek. While the men have the power in the world, it is how they deal with the vulnerable women around them that show who they are as people, how they will weld their power. 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. 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, believed in men and women working together, believed in a greater society?” In this movie, our hero’s world does not contract as he ages, it expands. He is able to love those who do not agree with him, to respect them. This whole movie is about compromise, about valuing partnerships and alternate views. And in that way, it is also about the “license Raj” and the stringent rules under which India lived for so many years. The flaw with those laws, arguably, is that there was no room for compromise, for changing as life changed. The government and capitalism should move forward together, like husband and wife, each taking the lead in turn, each trying to work with the other.
And that brings me back to Abhishek and Aish. I always love them onscreen together. Even before they were dating, Abhishek has such warm ease and confidence onscreen that he makes Aish seem reachable and human when he has scenes with her. And Aish loans him grace and dignity. It’s no Ranishek, but it’s very good. And they are perfectly cast and directed in this movie. Mani Ratnam was Aish’s first director, he can bring something special out in her, a kind of vulnerability. And Mani can bring out an strange ugliness in Abhishek that he doesn’t often reveal, a selfish anger and arrogance. Bringing the two of them together is electric, Abhishek’s blunt strength against Aishwarya’s precise movements. This movie leans into that, it’s all about the chemistry between them far more than the details of industrial misbehavior and newspaper reporting and so on.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Abhishek is a village boy, son of the local school teacher. He runs away from home to go work in Turkey, does well there, and returns home with a small stake. To make more an start a business, he partners up with his best friend from back home who suggests he offer to marry his sister, she is older and scandalous (just tried to elope), so his father will pay a lot to get rid of her. Abhishek agrees, and marries Aish. She thinks he is marrying her out of kindness, knowing she eloped (they met when she was riding the train back home) and won’t have any other offers. They move to the city and Abhishek struggles to get started in the cotton market, but is excluded by the old wealthy of the city. He goes to crusading newspaper editor Mithun Chakraborty for help, Mithun publishes an article protesting the monopoly of the old powers and Abhishek gets his shot. He rapidly rises in the market, and also falls in love with Aishwarya after marriage. Everything is great but Aish’s brother is increasingly resentful. At a party, he tells the secret that Abhishek didn’t think about Aish at all, just agreed to the marriage for the dowry. Aish leaves him, he goes back to the village to bring her home, they never talk about it again. As Abhishek gets more and more powerful, Mithun starts writing articles against him. Although they remain friends in their personal life, especially related to Mithun’s young granddaughter who is slowly dying of a nerve disorder. Years later, the granddaughter has grown up to be Vidya Balan, in a wheelchair, and she is friendly with Mithun’s hotshot new young reporter Madhavan. Aish is finally pregnant after years of marriage. Madhavan is determined to take down Abhishek, finds evidence (and sometimes fakes evidence) of how he is scamming the authorities. Madhavan is also determined to marry Vidya, proposes to her and convinces her that he wants to marry her, even if only for a little while until she dies. Abhishek is pleased with the marriage, Mithun is pleased with Abhishek’s twin girls, but they still are enemies in the press. Abhishek is served legal notice and shamed, has a heart attack. Aishwarya forces him to get better so he can fight and speaks for him when he can’t speak (literally). In the culmination of the film, when Aishwarya offers to speak on his behave in court and is questioned as to what gives her that right, Abhishek reveals that over half the business has always been in her name, since she was an “initial investor” (her dowry). As he treated her fairly, so does Abhishek reveal that he has treated the public fairly, he may have bent the rules a bit but he was always just trying to keep his company growing and pay back the small investors who believed in him. We end with a flashforward to Abhishek greeting a stadium full of investors to tell them that the company turned a profit for them all, again.
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 who 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. They are both well aware that this is not a love match. She thinks he is a nice friend of her brother’s 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 thinks 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.
Aish is the most important person in Abhishek’s life, but it is also important to see how Abhishek treats his “enemies”, Mithun and Madhavan. And how the film treats them. Mithun believes in fighting for the little guy, balancing the world. When Abhishek is the little guy, Mithun will fight for him. But once he becomes big, it is Mithun’s job to speak up for those he might abuse. And Abhishek understands that, understands that there is a need for balance. Madhavan never knew Abhishek as the little guy, on sees him as the enemy. But he is open to other perspectives, Vidya loves Abhishek and Madhavan does not keep them apart or show jealousy of that relationship. It’s a whole film filled with people who don’t like each other, but still respect each other, find a way to get along.
Vidya is the greatest symbol of that, she has no power over her own life and it would be easy for one of these people to “claim” her, to keep her from the others. But instead they find a way to work together, to accept that they are all important in her life. If Vidya is India, poor crippled struggling India, than she is also valuable and worthy of true love, and deserves the love that all of these characters can give her in their own way. And on a non-symbolic way, the romance between Vidya and Madhavan is handled perfectly. They only have a few scenes together, but we can see that they enjoy each other, Vidya smiles and opens up with him, Madhavan is quiet and respects her opinion. It’s another marriage of equals and partners, even if Vidya’s body is weak and broken. And that’s why he proposes the way he does, in a way that makes it clear it is not out of pity but because he really wants to be with her.
Vidya and Madhavan are an echo of Aish and Abhishek, a relationship that started unbalanced but became the most important way of creating balance in life. 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.