words cannot express: Guru

Finally, Guru in the theater (although now Salaam-e-Ishq has been cancelled due to its lackluster reviews, thanks very much, rest of the world). I have deliberately not read anyone else's thoughts on the movie, so while I may be last, and everything I say may already have been said, and better, at least my thoughts are still my own.

Subtitles are supposed to accomplish one basic and very important task: in the language of the audience, communicate the dialogue (and occasionally relavant printed text) of movies made in languages other than that of the audience. Simple. So why bother with them at all if they're hardly going to fall into the general realm of functional? Geeze. I'm really ticked off about this problem here - the subtitles were so sparse and so dull that I'm convinced I missed at least half of the story and even more of the verbally-expressed emotional heft. For example, someone would say three or four sentences, and we'd read "He has left the room," which clearly was neither the whole information nor the whole emotion of the speech. I think I could have done almost as well without them just by reading expressions and gestures and filling in with some of my other film-taught words. If anyone in the film industry reads this post, please tell me whom to address about this problem. I think Gurubhai would agree that it's just bad business to put out such a shoddy product. Of course, I don't have a choice in provider, do I? If so, I would gladly have paid 50% again as much to watch a version of this that left me feeling confident that I actually saw the movie. Wondering how much of the movie I missed or don't adequately understand is making it very hard to think about it - let alone write about it.

(Aside: would anyone like to comment on the purpose of having events for this movie in Toronto and New York? I don't know if those events were designed to increase awareness of the movie to general movie-going public in those cities [or their respective countries] or perhaps more specific targeted audiences, like various NRI/desi communities there? If they were in fact trying to attract attention of more of the "I don't tend to go to Hindi film" movie-oging public, doesn't it seem weird that the filmmakers would go to all this trouble to tout a product that a significant portion of those potential new audiences can't even understand? If this was my first Hindi film, I would have thought, "Wow, that was a pretty movie with pretty people in it; I wonder what was going on?")

Okay. There are two things that I think I understood adequately enough to comment on. The first is polyester, the raw material of his success. Why polyester? One of my Fulbright colleagues is obsessed with the symbolism of fabric in India, and I hope he'll post here about what he thinks about this question. I'm still mulling it over, but I thought it was pretty significant that the story was built around something modern but synthetic, something that's an alternate to Gandhi's homespun, something that's slick and malleable, something that we try to make look like other things.

The other is reconciliation. Though I have no idea what happened in the song that follows Sujata on her flight from Guru after she discovers the reason behind their marriage, I was really moved by the idea that apology, forgiveness, and real, complex, durable love can be expressed without spoken words. I wish my life worked more like that.

Overall, Guru didn't cohere into an especially interesting story for me. The performances were fine, although I thought Abhishek's work here had nothing on Yuva or even the taut and funny Bunty aur Babli. [Pause to duck behind the desk, anticipating rotten vegetables thrown at one.] Aishwarya too was adequate, but I much, much prefer her as smart and sparky, like in Kandoukondain Kandoukondain, and overall I thought this was yet another movie in which talented female performers didn't have material up to their abilities. I did like Madhavan much better here than in the other two roles I've seen him in, and of course if you only know Mithun Chakraborty from Disco Dancer and Commando, like I do, you'll be duly impressed.

Okay, wow, sorry, this is getting boring even to write. I might give this movie another try if I hear reliable reports that the subtitles have been vastly improved for the DVD. I wanted to like this, and I believe other non-Hindi speakers when they say they did, but personally I'm left shrugging. The question that nags at me is about Guru and his knowledge. I get that he was driven, but I don't understand which aspects of his company's success and problems were things he knowingly did and which were things his underlings decided. From his first days in business we know he smilingly plays the game to win, but those were in the days when obstacles and enemies were ethically simpler, and no one would feel particular outrage at a slimy broker being tricked by a fresh-faced upstart. But I never felt I saw Guru contemplate the costs of playing as his games became increasingly complex and affected many more people - his family and his country that he kept talking about, who at some level have to be considered as victims. So I can't say whether I'd call him a thug either, because I don't know what he did deliberately, knowingly, maliciously. And that's where I think the character of Guru is related to the connotation of polyester. We all wear it, but do we really know what it is, how it's made? No, and most of us don't care, either, because it's practical and budget-friendly and can survive being chucked in the washer countless times - the same as Gurubhai, except I had no doubt his purpose and trajectory through life were thoroughly inherent and not at all synthesized.

You can read Desi Music Club's review of the music here.


Lidia said…
Wow. Interesting review! I agree, it annoying having to read bad subtitles...you feel like your missing all that's good with the movie. By far, in my experience, the best subtitles have been Veer Zarra. Absolutely beautiful! I want to see Guru but even i don't think Abhishek will top his Yuva performance!
Anonymous said…
You've got to be kidding!! You didn't like 'Guru'? What exactly do you like?-----Maybe your exasperation with the subtitles overwhelmed everything else.This movie was Awesome!----period. And Abhishek's work was lightyears ahead of Yuva.Even with the atrocious subtitles you've got to be able to see that!
Tohou - I like the new blog incarnation - the ladybugs especially ! :) Thanks for the subtitle support - it's really awful in this one.

anonymous - well...yeah, I mean, I didn't hate it, I didn't think it was awful, but I just had no confidence that I understood the movie. I thought Abhishek was fine, but I felt there were a few moments of his performance that weren't his best - the over-the-top speech at his trial comes to mind, although of course part of that was writing - and again, I have no idea if he was actually saying what the subtitles said he was saying.... :)
Anonymous said…
Beth, the comments of "anonymous" notwithstanding, you are not the only person who was left scratching her head by this movie. It wasn't just the subtitles, either - the film tried to do too much, realized it was trying to do too much, and then pared away in many of the wrong places to leave a muddy story and a muddy message that often didn't make much sense.

One thing I have observed that you may find interesting is that the film reads considerably different to Indian audiences, who (a) recognize the references to real-life industrialist Dirubhai Ambani, and (b) take a slightly different view of corruption than we in the west do. That doesn't mean they all think it's a great movie, but I've noticed that some Indians are less nonplussed by the message than I was.
Anonymous said…
Hi Beth,

Unfortunately I have to agree with Anonymous( not his condescending tone though!). The subtitles were definitely bad but I thought the movie was fantastic--yes the final sppech was over-the-top but the Movie was fast-moving and as a viewer I was completely caught up in 'Guru's' life .I cheered his successes and cried at his misfortunes.Also I have to disagree with Carla about Indians having a different view to this Movie than Americans--I give you exhibit A:

Guru has 100% positive reviews from these various ‘Phoren’ Critics. me too as an American!


As regards to Abhishek's extraordinary performance I give you exhibit B--Straight from the Horse's mouth:

Oh wow, Guru!! Actually I'm glazing over this post right now because I actually havn't seen the movie yet, its sitting in my DVD collection waiting to be watched.

On a completely unrelated note, I had a couple questions about blogging itself:

1. How do you put banners on your blogs?

2. Is there an online community dedicated to bollywood to which I can get my bollywood blog linked to?

Thanks and happy blogging!

Angela :)
Carla - yes, exactly: whatever sense of message I had is very muddled. And I am more than happy to agree that once again, being someone other than the target audience for a movie has left me confused. Fair enough.

whitedesi - I don't want to get into quoting professional critics too much; one can genearlly find published reviews with a range of opionions. As for the interview with Abhishek, though, that's pretty interesting. I can imagine this was a more challenging role to play - as he says, it had to be mapped and constrained. All I can say is, for the reasons stated, the effect of it on me was much less. We also have to give him a little leniency to say glowing things about whatever project is currently in theaters - again, fair enough.

Angela - see it first! Right on!
Thanks for all your blog-related help Beth.

And you're right even Ash and Priyanka have their fashion foe-paws, but I can't seem to pull up that link you sent me as evidence.
Anonymous said…

so sorry you didn't really like the film much - and sorrier that the state of the subtitles conytributed to that. I'm afraid I have to wait for the DVD to determine how bad the subtitles were - I didn't even notice them!

As you may surmise, I loved the movie - thought it stood up to many of Mani's early works, though the similarity to Iruvar has been pointed out.

As for your questions: Polyester - since this was, in essence, a movie about Ambani, I guess that is why they picked that as his choice of industry. Ambani's Vimal textiles revolutionized the Indian clothing market. Until then, normal middle-class to poor people wore cottons for daily use and silks (if they could afford it) for occasions...Vimal changed all that - now there were affordable synthetics that didn't look awful - Vimal came up with innovative patterns and prints, and their showrooms and sales strategies were also very new for their time.
The second question - as to whether Guru really questions the costs of his doing business this way...you know, I don't think so - as he grew bigger, he simply saw all the regulations he had to get over, as further examples of babudom, meant to repress would-be entrepreneurs - and got over it any way he could. Again, I'm only repeating what many people have said, but unless you live under such a license raj where EVERY single thing takes fantastic effort, you really don't get the extent of what he achieved (the He here is Ambani, that I am thinking of). Guru clearly felt the laws were unjust - he quoted Gandhi as an example of a person getting over unjust laws as well - AFAIK, Gandhi's satyagraha movement was also illegal in its time. Like I said on Bollywhat as well - I did identify more with Guru than the regulations in this case. I had the history of my family - my father used Reliance stock to get enough money to build a house, in a time when home loans were rare and houses were built with savings. I think though, that a point brought up on the board is valid - Reliance (and thus Shakti, I imagine) would have also had to use strong-arm tactics with a lot of small folk - farmers and so on, to get their land - showing that would have definitely not made Guru the completely sympathetic character he is made out to be in the movie.

Is there a link on the Madras Talkies home page to provide comments? Can we tell them the subtitles were really bad?

Tere Bina - the words of the song have been translated on the board, but basically the song simply shows that the two of them feel lonely without the other - while at her mother's house, Aish comes to terms with the fact that she was married for the dowry, but that she is loved now for herself is proven to her when Guru comes for her - a very unusual thing for a man of his time and mileu to do for a wife who has run away from him.

This is long enough so will stop now!

Daddy's Girl said…
Interesting review, Beth. I like how people's takes on this film are so varied. My take on 'Guru': the subtitles were really very poor (I agree with Amy that they could have taken a page from 'Veer Zaara'), but I still enjoyed the movie very much and felt like I was 'carried along' by the story and the characters.
Personally, I liked the 'muddiness' (as Carla put it) and conflicted-ness of the message. I'm not a big fan of 'message' movies - not saying that a filmmaker shouldn't have an idea (s)he is trying to put across, just that I like to be given some leeway to re-interpet that idea in various ways. I liked that I felt it wasn't trying to make me see Gurubhai as a saint or a sinner (even though the portrayal was largely sympathetic, there was definitely room to refute that). I didn't think there was a strict hero/villain set-up between Abhi's character and Mithun and Madhavan's characters. I liked that I felt there was 'space' for me to make up my mind. I liked that there were lots of unanswered questions left for me to think about by the end.
And for me personally as a citizen of another developing country struggling with corruption and questions of identity, public welfare, independence and orientation, I guess I could relate a lot more to some of the issues. On that level, I was inspired by the movie. I haven't seen 'Yuva' yet, but I personally would rank Abhi's performance here as better than his B&B turn (although that was great too). And this was definitely the best Ash performance I seen so far (haven't seen 'Kandoukondain Kandoukondain').
illusory motion said…
Guru = Dhirubhai Ambani/Vimal Textiles/Polyester kings
The Independent = The Indian Express
ManikDas Gupta (Mithun)= Ramnath Goenka, newspaper baron and owner of Indian Express
Shyam Saxena (Madhavan)= S.Gurumurthy(Goenka's advisor and CA)
Politician Guru goes to meet in Delhi in a helicopter = Rajiv Gandhi
Contractor = Nusli Wadia, owner of Bombay Dyeing textiles and father of Ness Wadia, Preity Zinta's boyfriend

This is all "Coincidentally" of course...
Anonymous said…
I'd love to really disappoint you Beth by the fact that, the language used in the movie Guru is litrally of quirky style and cannot be directly or meaningfully translated to English.

Guru is inspired from the real life story of the Polyster King Dhiru Bhai Ambani who owned Riliance Industries and died in 2002. Dhiru bhai was also known as the king of Stock Market.

The Song 'Tere Bina', that you mentioned was a kolidoscopic flashback of the finar moments between the two.

AS Kandoukondain Kandoukondain goes... please don not laugh, is a Tamil film and not a Bollywood film (Hindi).. both from India though.

The Indian films do express the values of India's ages old culture which are some how a bit hard to understand... like you must have felt it in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehena.. a married woman is a married woman no matter what... examples... Hum dil de chuke sanam.

the same reason KANK was considered too bold as per the Indian taste.

Guru is a story of a visionary who knew to go on the top and achieve his dreams. No Matter What.
Anonymous said…
I can sort of understand why felt this way. The subject was a bit dry and the second half seemed to have been done in a clumsy manner. Don't get me started on the songs.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Magpie Ima said…
I just watched Guru and, yeah, missing 40% of the subtitles definitely made for an inferior experience. And I hate it when they don't bother with the songs at all.
hi magpie - I feel your pain. Cool knitting on your blog, by the way! :)

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