SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Neo-liberal icon

Success at any cost: Abhishek Bachchan in "Guru".  

A. SRIVATHSAN

The problem with "Guru" is a simplistic view of liberalisation and its critique.

MEN in black coats look down at the accused and rake up his past and throw a volley of questions. The nonchalant and arrogant protagonist literally stands up to them, mockingly asks for licence to do so and looks all the well-fed bureaucrats in the eye. He defends his success but stops short of celebrating it he actually holds it for the next and final scene and throws back the gauntlet. The camera pans disturbingly, produces a series of blurred images and tries to build an unavailable tension. This is not yet another court scene in an Indian movie where the moral dilemmas and mysteries are untangled in a catharsis of words and emotions. The judge here does not have to wield his hammer to call for order. The silence is well orchestrated, like the audience in a TV show everyone applauds when they're told to do so. This is the climax of "Guru", where the court scene gives way to a finance commission hearing. This swap with a traditional court scene is no more innovative than an attempt to imitate the Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator". However desperately "Guru" wishes to resemble "The Aviator" or make an impressive Indian version, it miserably fails both in complexity and scale. Many who watched the Tamil version were left confused with the final scene.

Film's dilemmas

The resemblance to "The Aviator" is the least of "Guru's" problems. The dilemmas of the film are in its position and willingness to support liberalisation, success at any cost and end justifying the means. It takes a simple view of liberalisation and its critique. On the one side is the useful, suave, liberal businessman in a polyester coat (or is it terrene?). On the other is the khadi-clad, swadeshi press baron. While the businessman knows what is good for the country, interprets policies and makes his own laws, the khadi-clad baron is stuck in a traditional worldview of good and bad and the faith in law. In the post welfare India, any opposition to neo-liberal policies is as anachronistic as khadi itself. Criticisms symbolised by press reactions are as useless as the deadpan expressions of the protégé reporter Shyam Saravanan in the film. You can beat the press, dole them silver coins and advertisements, and keep marching, he says. In the brave new world of "Guru", there are no sentinels and guardians. There is space only for the watchmen to open doors. In the final defence of his actions, Guru pulls up a nation that allowed itself to be trapped as a licensing raj with inept and ineffective policies. The overall socialist agenda of the government that impelled certain measures does not matter. The nation simply did not have the vision to see what was coming and it cannot stop a man in a hurry. After all, what can you expect from a nation, which in Mani Ratnam's view, is a cruel policing authority that serves summons even when the benign protagonist is sick and suffering. Guru's sermon about liberalism that follows mixes up compliance with servility and corruption with convenience.

Street smart

The film applauds the street-smart approach to economic growth. Guru even successfully confuses the public with investors and the poor with shareholders. More, he unabashedly tries to convince us that shareholders are equal partners and a public company is a true model of democracy built on principles of equality. Finally, the commission is confused about whether he is an intellectual or a thug. This is not surprising in the days when Padma Bhushans are given to CEOs of companies with dubious environmental records. Many threads of resistance and criticism disappear mysteriously in the film. The competitor industrialists, the press and the regulating politician are silenced at different stages of the film. The police are conspicuously absent. The film desires a completely unregulated utopian space a dream every neo-liberal would buy.At one stage of the film, Guru snarls at a golf-playing fellow industrialist as filthy bourgeoisie. This, however, does not make him a proletariat saint, certainly not the many Benz cars he owns. That is why when he mobilises language as a marker of class he fails to cut ice with the chairman of the commission and as well with the audience. When I looked around, there was hardly anyone in the lower rows of the theatre but the balcony was filled. An hour after the movie began, the air-conditioner was switched off. Some of the audience were agitated and wanted to know the reason. The maintenance foreman used his economic common sense and decided that a half-empty theatre cannot afford air-conditioning. After all he was maximising the profit. Any questions?