Thursday, February 01, 2007

GURU and Maniratnam's second innings

Having grown up as an ardent fan of Mani’s movies, its natural I have so many so many folks around asking me how his latest offering is. I myself thought Mani is at crossroads of his career even as I was awaiting GURU. That is because the times when he had his greatest hits were drastically different than today’s times. His releases were talked about due to his high dramatic themes and excellent technical values. Mani’s themes and characters are rooted in reality. I am talking about the days of Roja, Bombay, Iruvar, Dilse. They surely made news because it was like selling hot political themes, partly or fully controversial. At the box office, that was his USP. His superb taking of course is unmatched even today. But with so much of television and controversies around I was not sure he still retained his USP. The technical values his movies were high on are no more his lone Preserve. Even flops in Tamil have superb technical values these days, thanks to pioneers like Mani. So what is Mani's movies' USP now?

I think Mani’s career turning point was with Iruvar and Dilse. By this time, Mani had significant success at BO and he must be thinking about new challenges in terms of wider audience and universal content. Till then he skillfully made a career out of explosive (Nayagan, Roja, Bombay) and mythological (Mahabharata-like Dalapati, Savitri-like Roja, Karna-like Agni Nakshatram). He tapped the emotions of the audience successfully. But an MBA guy like him who reads heavily, following world cinema closely surely must be ambitious and he was. His movies show his thirst for excellence and his attempt like Thiruda Thiruda after a phenomenal success with Roja only shows his ambition to break out his comfort zone and get critical and commercial success. After all, despite commercial success, his movies doesn't really have the deep insights. Roja and Bombay were like news in a daily but were not really social or political commentaries. I mean a Bombay pales in front of something like Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer. Mani himself declared he is a pucca commercial filmmaker. And of course he want to be one, Spielberg, who can make a Jurassic Park as well as Schindler’s List. Universal themes they were and Mani had his plans and dreams. But Alas, Fate has different plans. With an ambitious Iruvar (which I think is his boldest attempt till date) failing at BO, Mani, I think, went on the backfoot. Dilse too wasn’t up to his writing standards and its failure too drove him back to Tamil right into his safe haven of ‘love stories’/ inter-personal relations in form of Alaipayuthey. Calling this safe may look far-fetched but I have a gut feeling that he can easily make great love stories although he didn’t do many apart from Mouna Ragam and Geetanjali. For such a great artist, its natural to have a keen eye on relations.

Alaipayuthey’s success financially must have consoled him as Tamil yet again proved safe zone. So he starts his second innings and makes a Kannathil Muthamittal to cross over into critical acclaim. It was a real serious effort. We even heard he was making it without songs. But Mani’s movies seem to be so dependent on AR Rahman. (Even a flop like Dilse is unthinkable without ARR.) So Kannathil..gets songs and we get a not-so-great script. It was a good attempt but a lot more is desired to take him to world stage with strong BO collections. Mani seemed to be improvising and he seems to have made up his mind to get into the depths of issues rather than making superficial stuff. Kannathil Muthamittal proved that. So did Aayitha Ezhuthu. Yet again he took an off-beat theme and which is very close to Indian psyche. There sure were comparisons with Spanish film Amores Perros in terms of structure. And that point must be noted. Ofcourse, Mani has his eyes on critical acclaim in world cinema. However, once again, the script wasn’t up to the mark in Aayitha Ezhuthu. In fact the Hindi version is his worst film ever, in other words, its his only ‘bad film’. Everything went wrong in that movie. So, Mani’s second innings that started with Kannathil.. where content takes the centrestage in his movies and all else, including music, takes backstage. Kannathil ..showed blood relations in an environment of ethnic and political strife. Aayitha Ezhuthu showed different strata of a vast society. Both were moderate successes and so Mani now again thinks about Hindi to break onto the big stage. To try again what he missed with Dilse. Hopefully, he must be more prepared now in content as well as language! He was aiming at younger audience with Yuva and here again he chooses a subject (Guru) that aims at the same niche audience. Understandable how bad a break he needs to stick to the path he chose and still get the eluding commercial success. In this scenario comes Guru which will dictate his path henceforth. Guru should be showing how Mani evolved and how he can connect to the new generation.


There is something about backdrop and milieu in movie content. I mean what can be more appealing than a story of a business czar in the changing times of license-permit raj and his humble beginnings in a dusty Gujarat village. When I first heard about Guru, I thought Mani is making a movie that reflected India’s changing times of 80s and 90s. The Gujarati angle adds the flavor to it just as the Italian backdrop adds to Godfather. When I first heard about RGV Sarcar, I imagined it would be setup in the Hindi heartland with all the raw look. Alas, RGV was not that imaginative! Vishal Bhardwaj tapped the same so skillfully in Omkara. Coming back to Guru, despite the excitement of the challenging content, It was clear all along that with such content, Guru’s fate would firmly and completely depend on the younger audience. It never crossed my mind that he would make something like Citizen Kane as he never inclined to make such things before. And true to my guess he didn’t. But even my guess wasn’t right. Guru is no Citizen Kane but it didn’t even reflect the changing times of 80s. I am not one of those who keep proposing that Mani made a career out of sensationalism in his movies. Even when it was clear, Guru has its inspiration in Ambani, I felt it is incidental. When he need to show the businesses of 80s, its natural for him to show the tactics of the most successful guy of that time. I thought the media was rather being sensationalistic! After seeing Guru, I really wondered Mani is up to. The film almost ended up a biopic, and a bad one at that. Complete with the DuPont machinery in Shakti Industries! It is neither the story of an individual’s struggle nor is it about India’s most important economic era that gave birth to free enterprise. Abhishek just does a mini Kamal Hassan and in these days of Bollywood movies, that is stupendous acting! I am not saying Abhishek didn’t perform. He did but its definitely not over-the-top performance, what with such a nice author-backed protected role which is not exposed too much. And the fact that the movie is talked about only for Abhishek’s performance shows the failure of the focus in content. Guru should have stressed more on the times it was set in. It took for granted the audience knows all about license raj and how it was obstructing free enterprise. The result: Many in audience wondered what the film is all about. After all, if at all they saw economic ideologies in movies, it was only the glorification of socialism in good old days. For a brief minute in the climax, I wished Gurubhai will (at least) break into a lengthy monologue ala Howard Roark in Fountainhead. Its well known Mani is influenced by Ayn Rand. But even that was not to be! So Guru ends up a focus-less superficial movie glossed over with a star couple and some great music and background score and Mani seems to be back on the Bombay path. The gumption he showed in content of two of his earlier movies is missing. Pucca commercial (that’s what he called himself in an interview). What a movie it would have been, if he went the extra mile. Pity, he missed out tapping the great theme. So, we have to wait for Mani to get that great theme and make his magnum opus, our Crouching Tiger, Hidden dragon. The problem is, at 51 he is not getting any younger. The irony is, this is still the best Bollywood can offer. Even more ironic is I came out of theatre (first day, first show) smiling! After all, Mani is back on the big stage with this commercial success and now with the new-found security, he may again resume his second innings with his next film. Eternal optimist, I am.


kiran said...

i never knew mani was influenced by ayn rand, this is a news.
i haven't seen guru ..
but yeah i've liked mani's movies and thought he is an intelligent guy.
and as for the blog :) its is a nice one...

P.S. nobody made a decent copy of GODFATHER...well, NAYAGAN comes close...but way.ppl still keep making godfather in every few years :)

the_argumentative_indian said...

We could have never known a few things like this Mani unless for his equally loquacious actress wife Suhasini. She was wondering why Mani and many other men gave such a serious thought abt Rand in one her interviews long ago.

comin' to Rand, infact RGV is her admirer. If u have noticed, his 'Naach' was inspired from Rand's Fountainhead.
u r right ant Sarkar. Infact i wud like to think it has nothing to do with Godfather. He must have just tried Mani's formula of driving piggyback on an existent political figure.
BTW I feel grt u liked the blog.

I feel grt u liked the blog.

Naga said...

Could not understand the blog completely, but felt it is too good.Insight in maniratnam's movie is fabulous.I saw Guru and felt it is good, but after seeing this blog I thought of seeing it again just to see what movie was about as per this ArgumentativeIndian.

ajitha said...

very good article...
i saw the movie twice and even then i didn't understand what the movie is trying to convey...
everyone is talking abt how grt abhi's performance is.. but i think otherwise... particularly the climax scene.. i am sure it wud have a powerful impact if it was kamal(for eg)
and i think songs are unnecesary...(even though they r grt!!)
i hope mani would do better in his next movie, i mean focus on the story

Sharb said...

Finally saw the movie. Half the theatre was empty. The movie was good in parts; I am still trying to figure out the one's I liked.

Part I – Early Years
The “Hagia Sofia” was breath-taking. The actress was not. A waste of 6 minutes.
I still don’t get it, since the actor is such a crowd puller, Couldn’t there have been no lead actress?

Part II – Humble Beginnings

I do like this part; though we are shown how determined and clever he is we are never shown his motive. What drives him Money? Power? Love ?
I can’t see the point of minor characters on the screen making judgmental statements of the lead character. I would like to find that out myself. Thank You!
A lot of love was shown but she wasn’t that important in his quest, another 15 minutes lost. I love Mithun Da in his role as a Idealist Newspaperman. If only their fight was given more prominence than the romance scenes which were there only because of the actress, going back, does the actress buy her time on the screen? But where the hell is she getting all that money from?

Part III – The quest for Power

I especially like the scene where he greets his Stock Holders.
Mental Note: Buy more stocks, Stocks = Nation Building.
Then when he goes on to refuse the offer made by the Contractors. Good Scene again. I like it when he goes on the offensive. Are they supposed to be the Birlas? This should’ve been given more airtime again. Birth of daughters and token ultra-perspective dialogue from actress. Nice try! I still don’t have the answer from the movie

Part IV – Der Untergang

What actually pressures the government into taking action? Press? Other Industrial Powers ? The movie takes a total turn here, Guru’s suddenly takes it personal and he suffers for it.

Part V – Speechmaking

Roshan Seth has the perfect brit accent. Good start. A litany of civil suits against Guru. Okay. Now the final scene.

rajkishore said...

The Climax reminded of Fountainhead as well and it also brought a couple of other similarities between fountain head and Guru.
In fountian head there are many instances where you feel that Roark is going to spell out his theory of life atleast on a couple of occasions. Be it when Keating degrades him to be a sort of failure or with Gail who kind of worships him. You feel as if he is going to come out once in the next page or so and it does not happen. I felt the same thing when Abhishek goes to MAdhavan's house or to Mithun Da's house. But he does not come out. But just before climx when he says namasthe to the the committie, i like confirmed once for all that mani had set it up akka fountianhead style. Just that Abhishek gives a discount and finshes of in 4 mins 30 seconds unlike John Galt who goes on for atleast 50 pages you almost think that you must be mad reading all that and at the same time don't want to :).

Nice blog Amar.