Britain's top pop artiste, Tom Pickle, travels to Bombay, India, circa 1960s to learn to play the sitar (musical instrument) from renowned maestro Ustad Zafar Khan. Tom is taken to Zafar's h... Read allBritain's top pop artiste, Tom Pickle, travels to Bombay, India, circa 1960s to learn to play the sitar (musical instrument) from renowned maestro Ustad Zafar Khan. Tom is taken to Zafar's home, where he gets to meet his wife and several daughters, and the maestro himself. Zafar ... Read allBritain's top pop artiste, Tom Pickle, travels to Bombay, India, circa 1960s to learn to play the sitar (musical instrument) from renowned maestro Ustad Zafar Khan. Tom is taken to Zafar's home, where he gets to meet his wife and several daughters, and the maestro himself. Zafar never has had a disciple as Tom, and is clearly disappointed with his lack of respect. Nev... Read all
That being said, "The Guru" really doesn't lack plot. Granted, it's not Wyler or Ford or Hawks, but there's as much plot in "The Guru" as there is in most Satyajit Ray. However, I can see how the film might disappoint the plot-addicts of the world, and since that constitutes the vast majority of viewers these days, maybe it was always destined to be an under-appreciated film. Its strengths lie elsewhere, in its themes, its ambiance, and its incredibly lucid depiction of two disparate cultures that have been thrown together since the dawn of British colonialism, but are just beginning to learn to truly live together. In that way, it is very similar to Ivory's last feature film, "Shakespeare Wallah", which was a better film overall, but "The Guru" doesn't miss the mark by much.
Ivory's early work was impressive. He made three beautiful documentary shorts between 1957 and 1964 -- "Venice: Themes and Variations", "The Sword and the Flute", and "The Delhi Way" -- and yet Ivory's best work from this time period was certainly his feature fictions. Clearly influenced by Satyajit Ray (and borrowing his brilliant cinematographer, Subrata Mitra, for all of his early films), Ivory's first feature film was "The Householder" in 1963. It's a lighthearted but emotionally evocative work that calls to mind Ray's "The World of Apu". And while all of Ivory's films from this time period are about India, "The Householder" was notable for being a solely Indian production ("Shakespeare Wallah" and "Bombay Talkie" were American productions, and "The Guru" is an Indian-American coproduction).
While "The Householder" was undoubtedly a very good film, "Shakespeare Wallah", Ivory's second feature (for which he hired Satyajit Ray himself to do the film's music), saw Ivory taking a significant step forwards, and beginning a process that he would continue with "The Guru": the thorough exploration of the relationship between India and western culture (Ivory was the perfect man for the job, given his experience in India combined with his American heritage). I've enjoyed contrasting these two films very much. "Shakespeare Wallah" was a much bleaker film, contemplating the impossibility of these two cultures ever truly coming together in spirit, whereas "The Guru", interestingly, is much more optimistic. The poem quoted in the film says something like, "Your path lies here, and mine there, but how can we ever truly be apart, when we are connected in spirit?" And so without backpedaling on his previous film's ideas (rather, expanding on them), Ivory suggests, in "The Guru", that the shared history of these two contrasting cultures can overcome any barriers that might otherwise separate them. It's a romantic notion, possibly even a naive one, but not by any means an unwelcome one.
"Shakespeare Wallah" was about displacement, depicting a traveling troupe of British actors in India slowly coming to grips with the reality that they no longer belonged in the India they had come to love and call home. "The Guru" is similar in its portrayal of westerners in India, but at its core it's a very different film. In "The Guru", the westerners call England home, and have to assimilate themselves into an unfamiliar Indian culture. In "Shakespeare Wallah", the westerners are already assimilated into Indian culture at the beginning of the film. Despite being British, they call India home, and the unfamiliar culture that they have to come to grips with is the new India, a changing India that no longer has a place for them. And so "Shakespeare Wallah" is a more complex, and overall a better film.
Nevertheless, "The Guru", Ivory's third feature, is a rock solid effort. Once again Ray's influence is felt very strongly, especially in the music sequences, which are somewhat reminiscent of "The Music Room". Here's another good opportunity to compare and contrast. In many ways, Ivory's film picks up where Ray's film left off. In "The Music Room", the protagonist is forced to confront an India in which the country's rich traditions and culture are dying at the hands of modernization and globalization. In "The Guru", that process is virtually complete before the film even begins, and the sudden intrusion of a jet airliner against the tranquil Indian landscape in the opening moments of the film, carrying on it a pop superstar from the west, states that reality to us loud and clear, right from the outset.
The film is gorgeously shot, with magnificent use of color, and its atmosphere and ambiance are fantastic. The final, end-credits sequence is among the most beautiful imagery I've seen in some time. Overall, the film is a delightful meditation on the struggles of two cultures to know each other, to accept each other, and to live together in harmony. It is comprehensive in its observation of all the obstacles that stand in the way, and sympathetic to both cultures, without condemning or condoning anything along the way.
"The Guru" is not a masterpiece, but it's a very good, perhaps borderline great film that deserves much more love than it's been given. And while it may not be Ivory's best, for anyone looking to explore his oeuvre, this film is absolutely a significant piece of it.
RATING: 8.33 out of 10 stars
- May 7, 2015