Mani Ratnam's Guru is a bio-pic, masquerading as fictional cinema because Mukesh Ambani did not like the idea of Anil-campwallah Abhishek reprising his dad. The genre is relatively unexplored in Hindi cinema. Shahrukh, when he made Asoka, stated that the success of such a movie can be gauged best if the audience tries to know more about the protagonist after watching the film (though how many people actually tried to know more about the Emperor whose motifs adorn all Indian state emblem after watching SRK's movie is really suspect). And I agree, I read more about Illiad after watching Troy, the ordinariness of the movie not withstanding. And my above-average knowledge of Hindu mythologies can easily be attributed to Ramanand Sagar and BR Chopra.
Guru is Dhirubhai Ambani's story, tracing his rise and ending around the time Rajiv Gandhi lost power. Anyways, subsequently, Manmohan Singh opened up India to the world, and Reliance converted itself into a professionally managed business conglomerate, before another Mahabharat played out in the clan in the new century. Maybe, we will have a sequel from Ratnam with Karisma-Kareena playing the protagonists in the next chapter of the tale. This should antagonise the Bachchans sufficiently and make Mukesh happy.
The similarities between Gurukant Desai and Dhirubhai Ambani are immense. Both were sons of school teachers, travelled abroad to work in petroleum companies (to Turkey and Aden/Dubai respectively), started trading in clothes, had fall-outs with initial business-partners, built a cult of equity-investors, pulled strings to manage the 'licence raj' (the real-life then-PM was converted into a faceless Industries Minister), took shareholder meetings in stadiums, and suffered paralytic strokes when embroiled in legal wranglings. Even the logo of Shakti Industries has an uncanny resemblance to the Reliance logo. Most importantly, the tirade by Ramnath Goenka and S Gurumurthy (played by Mithun and Madhavan respectively) against Reliance is well-captured. Sadly, there is no Nusli Wadia to spice up things.
The two halves of Guru are contrasting. The first half moves at a quick pace, establishing all the characters quickly and firmly, and you stay engaged. The problems begin in the second half. The movie drags, and there is a totally unnecessary romantic track thrown in between Madhavan and a wasted Vidya Balan. While the songs are good, none of them were really required. Possibly the best way to use them was the Hairat-e-Aashiqi way, in the background. However, must admit, Ratnam has shot another number stunningly in Barso Re. He continues to make the most ordinary Indian locales look brilliant on screen. The climax of the movie is pedestrian, and totally ineffective. Abhishek tries to do Amitabh in Deewar, with Roshan Seth & Co. replacing the now legendary shivlinga, and the chasm shows.
Performance wise, like always, both Mithun and Madhavan are in fine form (Mithun da even looks like Goenka). Even the character artists are competent. Aishwarya is a thousandfold improvement over D:2, in fact, anything will be better than that. The most critical role is Abhishek Bachchan's, who does it with a fair bit of panache, especially as the young enthusiastic corporate-climber. He exaggerates quite a bit as the old man, but that is more of a casting issue. I cannot think of too many actors who can essay an entire lifetime as well as Kamal Haasan did in Nayakan, so the benchmark is unfair (remember Shahrukh in Veer-Zaara, looked more demented than old).
Thankfully, Abhishek and Aishwarya have some decent chemistry going. Ratnam usually showcases two kind of romances: the ultra-passionate ones (as Manisha Koirala was wooed in Bombay and Dil Se), or the more conventional circumstantial one (as in Roja). Here, he thankfully opts for the latter. To show his practicality and bloody-mindedness, Abhishek marries Ash for the dowry money. The scene where she gets to know this is vintage Ratnam!
Like in most Ratnam movies, what works for Guru is the realism, and this time he has backed it with more authentic research. One just cannot take sides with either of the warring parties, and that's something for Hindi cinema. What goes against is the superficiality of the second half, especially the climax which was a more complicated legal problem, not just a grand witness statement. I still prefer Mani Ratnam's other Hindi movies over Guru.