Bollywood's New Guru

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It was Friday night, and the big theater was jammed with Indian fans awaiting the premiere of the new year's big movie. Bollywood princess Aishwarya Rai was greeted with a bouquet of roses from a city official and audience cries of "We love you, Ash!" Abhishek Bachchan, a rising actor and son of Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan, enters to girlish squeals not heard since Hrithik Roshan last went topless in public. Mani Ratnam, who is internationally the most revered writer-director of Indian films, said a few words. Composer A R Rahman, whose hundred or so film scores have made him arguably the world's all-time top-selling recording artist, appeared but remained silent. The house lights dimmed and Guru began.

A ritzy premiere such as this would typically take place in Mumbai (Bombay) or in Ratnam's home town Chennai (Madras). But Bollywood films have eyes to be as popular in America as in India, Indonesia, the Middle East and North Africa, where they dominate cinematic culture. So the principals of Guru had come 7,800 miles to the Empire 25 theater just off Times Square in New York City to flack their film this weekend. (They'd been in Toronto the evening before.) Then Abhishek and Ash flew back to India, where, in a flourish that Brad and Angelina might take tips from, they announced their engagement.

Since I had put Ratnam's Nayakan on the all-TIME 100 Movies list, and cited the Rahman score for Ratnam's Roja as one of my five favorite soundtracks, it seemed a small favor in return to take a 10min. subway ride to see their new film. It was worth the trip — mine, if not theirs.

In the hermetically sealed fantasy world that most Indian films inhabit, Ratnam's movies often flirt with incendiary political issues: a terrorist kidnapping in Roja; the 1992-93 Hindi-Muslim riots in Bombay; the rivalry of Tamil actor-statesman M.G. Ramachandran (known as MGR) and screenwriter-statesman M. Karunanidhi (MK) in Iruvar; more terrorism in Del Se; the Sri Lankan war in Kannathil Muthamittal. He is also fascinated with powerful figures in the Mumbai Mafia. Nayakan attached the structure of The Godfather to the career of gang lord Varadarajan Mudaliar, and Ratnam revisited the underworld in Agni Nakshatram and Thalapathi.

Guru is another fictionalized bio-pic, this time taking inspiration from the career of Indian business executive Dhirajlal Ambani. Known as Dhirubhai, Ambani rose from rural nobody to towering tycoon without the usual benefits of family wealth, education or connection. He was the founder and chairman of Reliance Industries, manufacturer of the polyester that clothed India (and in the 70s lent its kitchy style to tight-pantsed Bollywood actors like Amitabh). By Dhirubhai's death in 2002, Reliance was India's largest corporation, a leader in petrochemicals and a dozen other interests and the largest corporation. A Times of India poll in 2000 chose him as Greatest Creator of Wealth in the Century.

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