Hey, have you heard the story about the guy who pulled himself up from nothing to become a wealthy tycoon, but lost his soul in the process? It's a tale that's almost as old as capitalism itself and one that always ends with the protagonist-turned-antagonist either renouncing his sins (call this the Christmas Carol ending) or dying alone and unloved (the Citizen Kane ending). No matter what happens in the final moments, the message remains the same: It's good to be a visionary businessman, but it's better to be a nice guy. That's what makes the new Bollywood drama Guru so fascinating. Offhand, it's difficult to think of another rags-to-riches story where the mogul becomes a national hero because of his ruthless business tactics. To put this in perspective for American audiences, imagine a version of Wall Street that ends with Gordon Gekko ascending to the Oval Office and making "Greed is Good" the official law of the land.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Guru spans four decades in the life of the titular tycoon, Gurukant "Guru" Desai (Abhishek Bachchan), who rises from humble origins as the ne'er-do-well son of a village schoolmaster to become India's leading manufacturer of polyester. Along the way, he acquires a lovely wife (Aishwarya Rai), a few close friends and numerous enemies. His chief opponents are the members of India's press corps, who file story after story about his business-code violations and cozy relationships with top government officials. (The movie stacks the deck against these crusading journalists from the get-go, however, most notably in a scene where a reporter stages a damning photo and then publishes it as the real deal. Paging Jayson Blair!) Tellingly, Guru doesn't pretend that he hasn't dirtied his hands during his rise to power. But rather than view this as some kind of moral compromise, to him it's simply the price of doing business in a nation where an outdated class system, coupled with a restrictive bureaucracy, discourages independent entrepreneurs from helping the economy grow. By flouting his country's rules, the movie seems to insinuate, Guru isn't only a smart businessman-he's a patriot. In fact, the final scene of the movie finds him standing in front of a cheering throng, telling them that the rest of the world will soon know that "we are coming," a not-so-subtle reference to the emergence of India as an economic power.
A bolder film would have explored the irony in turning a character like this into a hero, but Guru isn't particularly interested in such deep thoughts. That the picture manages to be entertaining despite its questionable ethics is a testament to the pleasures of a well-made Bollywood spectacle. Directed by veteran Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam, Guru boasts excellent production values, enjoyable dance numbers and two charismatic turns from normally lightweight stars. In the past, Bachchan has struggled to escape the shadow of his famous father, Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan, and here he finally finds his footing as an actor. Some of his strongest work can be seen in the second half of the movie, when he packs on the pounds to play Guru as an older man. Freed from having to be the handsome heartthrob, Bachchan stops posing and starts performing. As Guru's dutiful wife, Rai is given much less to do, but she shares an easy chemistry with her co-star and gets one crowd-pleasing moment towards the end of the movie when she becomes her husband's voice after a stroke has left him unable to speak. It's scenes like this that allow audiences to enjoy Guru without buying into what it's selling.