Mani Ratnam and the fine art of commercial cinema

Jan 14, 2007 Priyanka Khanna

New Delhi, Jan 14 (IANS) Known for making a fine art out of commercial cinema, acclaimed filmmaker Mani Ratnam has with "Guru" once again rekindled Indian cinema's hopes of a crossover success like Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon".

The underrated filmmaker from southern India, who is much loved and equally accused of compromising for the sake of commercial success, has taken the first step towards targeting American audiences by premiering his latest film - "Guru", starring Abhishek in the title role - in America.

Hitherto, the most visible face of Indian cinema internationally has been Bollywood stars backed by the mighty Yash Raj Films or by Karan Johar.

The star-studded targeted marketing of "Guru" to a global audience is more than welcome, trade observers say.

Speaking about the strategy about the overseas marketing of "Guru", advisor Charles Kiel says that the success of Chinese production "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" goes to show that if marketed sensitively even a film with subtitles can be a huge hit in America.

"This notion that you can just market a film the same way to everybody is a recipe for disaster."

"Guru", he notes, got off to a good start with its glitzy premiere, which was also attended by the film's leading lady Aishwarya Rai. Still, its subtitles (the dialogue is mostly in Hindi) could pose a challenge for mainstream North American audiences.

"Guru" spans several decades to tell its story of an ambitious young villager who rises to become the newly independent India's first successful homegrown industrialist, but not without indulging in some corrupt practices along the way.

The song-and-dance numbers shouldn't be a problem either, he said, noting that Oscar-winning musical "Chicago" "had no problem breaking into the West".

"Guru" is based on Dhirubhai Ambani, who is India's best-known rags-to-riches billionaire and founder of the $9 billion-worth Reliance Group, though the filmmaker vehemently denies that it is a biopic.

"Guru" is about a young village lad (essayed beautifully by Abhishek) who reaches the pinnacle of the corporate world.

It paints a picture of a headstrong man succeeding in pre-liberalised India when even getting a telephone connection required a series of government clearances. At some levels it is an uplifting film but when the protagonist shrugs off accusations of immorality and manipulation it exposes the underbelly of the corporate world.

Performance wise this is Abhishek's best work ever, better than the class act in Mani's previous film "Yuva". All of Ratnam's actors like to go an extra mile for him and in "Guru" it is no different. Abhishek has put on weight to look the part of older Guru.

The film is musically, technically and visually a treat but the narration sags at places.

Even if "Guru" is not the Holy Grail Indian cinema has been looking for, Ratnam surely has it in him to make India's first true global hit, film critics say.

Through Tamil and Hindi films like "Nayakan", "Roja", "Bombay", "Iruvar", "Alai Payuthey", "Dil Se" and "Yuva", he has revolutionised filmmaking in India.

Acclaimed for his individual style, social awareness and original treatment of themes -- from the explosive "Bombay", "Dalapati" to the tender "Alai Pyudhey", he is credited for bringing Western sophistication and tempo to deal with essentially Indian themes. He is one of the few mainstream filmmakers to have centrestaged the child in "Anjali" and "Kannathil Mutthamittal".

Critics fault him for commercialising serious issues in the popular mould, but cannot deny that he has been more successful in treading the middle way between artistic and commercial cinema.

Admittedly he has compromised in order to come out with a perfect recipe for all kinds of audiences but the common feature in all his films have been their brilliance in technical aspects like art direction, cinematography and background score.

For years Ratnam seems to be pushing against some traditional barriers, but his film still operates within a rather chaste set of Bollywood values. He does throw caution out of the window in a small-budget film.

Now, if only he would do that for a mega-starrer as well we may have a finely crafted crossover hit in our hands.


Superstar and thinking actor Aamir Khan, who has recently given two films that came very close to achieving global glory, will be teaming up with Ratnam, adding fuel to hopes that the duo will create movie magic that goes beyond all barriers.

Unlike Mani's last few films, this will be a one-language film, to be made in Hindi only.

"I can't speak Tamil," Aamir stated, "Right now, Mani hasn't finalised anyone else. Not even the leading lady. All I know is that I have allotted dates from October onwards."


The year 2007 may have just begun, but one can confidently state that it will be an interesting year.

Big-ticket release "Guru" was accompanied by Manish Jha's "Anwar". While Ratnam subtly exposes the underbelly of the corporate world in "Guru", "Anwar" starring Manisha Koirala and brother Siddharth, is based on communalism.

By the look of it and the not-so-encouraging movie reviews, "Anwar" may be a commercial dud but will rack enough controversy to keep it alive in public memory.

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