Some of Abhishek Bachchan's most challenging roles are in Mani Ratnam movies. The actor had a breakthrough moment in 2004 when he played Lallan in Ratnam's ensemble film Yuva. In 2007, he offered Bachchan the lead role of Gurukant Desai in Guru, which was rumoured to be loosely based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani. The character required Bachchan, who was 30 at the time, to put on weight and age several years. The actor revisits the film by taking us through some of its key moments and scenes.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
AC: I'm excited to talk to you about a film that is one of my favourites from your filmography, Mani Ratnam's Guru. Guru crosses a span of 50 to 60 years. We see you first as a strapping young man, then becoming a much older man with grey hair, a paunch and glasses. What was your first instinct when Mani Ratnam offered you the role? Were you afraid?
AB: So some film trivia – we were never meant to make Guru. We made Yuva, which released in the first half of 2004, and about a year after Mani sent me a message. Mani has always addressed me by my character's name, so he wrote, 'Lallan, are you ready to do one more?' There was a script that he was very keen to make called Packy. It was the story of a boy whose parents had immigrated to England in the late 60s and he grows up in the midlands of Great Britain, faces a whole lot of racism, and how he deals with that and becomes an antisocial element.
I was in the throes of shooting Umrao Jaan when I got a message from him saying he wanted to meet me. I said, 'I'll just call you'. He said no I want to meet you. That's when I panicked because the thought of losing a film with Mani was heart-breaking. He came over to my office and said, 'I don't want to make this film… I'm not able to do anything in the second half, the screenplay really isn't going anywhere.' Also he was feeling that it was kind of going into the 'Lallan Singh goes to London' zone. I very reluctantly said okay because I can't force him. We had decided to meet for dinner at Shaad's (Ali) house that night. At the door Mani turned around and said, 'There's something else that I want to make. Will you do that?' And I was like, is that a question! And that's when he said that he was thinking of making this story and it happened to be Guru. We hadn't got the title of Guru at that point in time.
AC: What was it called?
AB: There was no title. It was just a rags to riches story of a tycoon. We started shooting two months after that. I finished Umrao Jaan and flew to Istanbul where we started the shoot. I remember it was Mani's first time shooting in Europe. We started over there and came back. I had about a 4-day gap and then I shifted to Badami in Karnataka where we shot my village portions. From there on, we went to Chennai and finished the rest of the film. Many months later, Mani wanted to shoot one song and a scene. I was in the middle of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom's climax shoot when I rushed to Madurai to shoot the now very famous Tere Bina song with Aishwarya. If you see that song again you can see I have very long hair because I had grown it for Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. We pinned my hair and I wore a stole around my neck so that the ends wouldn't show.
AC: You were 31 years old when you shot this. How did you get into the headspace of this man? What was Mani's brief to you?
AB: Mani gives a brief? (laughs)
AC: Does he not?
AB: Make it real, make it real! That's all Mani says to you. For Yuva we had done some severe prep. But we didn't have time for this one so we just jumped into Guru both feet first in the deep end. I obviously did what I had to do on my end and talked to him about how I saw it. But I think by and large Mani has a wire frame always ready for his characters and he likes to colour it in on set. But the basic brief was let's not try and be heroic with him. We wanted to highlight his flaws. But one thing we were both very sure of is that Guru is very energetic person. I said that the older he gets, he must compensate for his old age by trying to walk even more energetically.
Even if there's a curveball thrown at him, he'll learn how to turn it around and throw it back. The classic scene was before the interval with Mithun da (Chakroborty) and Maddy (R Madhavan) and Vidya (Balan), where Mithun da calls him to the office and gives him a dressing down. It was a very brave scene because Nana ji, which was Mithun da's character, openly challenges Guru by saying, 'I might treat you like a son but I'm coming after you now' and Guru's hurt by that, which he only shows to Vidya. He then he goes up to Maddy and says, 'Ye vazan aur ye kapda bohot mehnat se mila hai. Guru bhai se ladna hai toh Guru bhai banke, lekin Guru bhai ek hi hai. ( I have got this authority and uniform after working very hard. If you want to fight Guru bhai you have to be Guru bhai but, there's only one real Guru bhai.)
There was another scene which I used to love. It is when Guru goes to Arzan Contractor to get him to agree to give him permission to trade because apart from being a very wealthy Parsi businessman in Mumbai, Arzan was also the president of the union that he needed permission from. After going to his office several times and not getting the opportunity to meet him, he finds out that Arzan is playing golf. So he shows up at the golf club and Arzan Contractor is very amused by this villager and in a slightly condescending way, he challenges him to play golf. He says if you can putt this ball, I'll give you your license. Guru thinks for a second and then picks up the ball and puts it in the hole and says, 'good shot sir!' Arzan Contractor finds it very amusing because that was Guru thinking on his feet. That's a very Mani Ratnam thing to do, you know. He brings something which is literally under your nose, which is so obvious and we don't think about, in terms of performance, and he makes you do that.
There's a wonderful scene between Sujju and Guru when they are on the bed and they start quarrelling with each other like children. And before that they're talking about how they're running out of money. That's such a Mani thing to do. It's such a real emotion, it's such a believable action between two people. I think when he does that, he just grounds the film in reality. So there's a lot of what Mani does on set which is very exciting.
But the only thing that we had decided was to keep Guru very energetic. One of the few times you see him stumped, and I can remember just two, is when he goes to Arzan Contractor's sister's wedding and Arzan takes him to meet his father. His father writes him a blank cheque and says do whatever you want. Guru just looks up at him and he doesn't know what to say. He doesn't take the cheque, and then he goes to his accountant's house in the middle of the night and erupts! That was the first time you see Guru saying this is a guy I'm going to have to think about, this is not somebody I can steamroll or charm.
Even when Guru's had a stroke and the government officials show up to serve him a notice, he's cocky with them. He tells his wife to ask them if they'd had something to drink. He says, 'you guys be prepared because I'll come prepared'. And when he goes to the court, he's literally running up the stairs because he doesn't want to show any sign of weakness. There were many things that we based him on. People never believed me but I actually based my portrayal on somebody that I know.
AB: Vashu Bhagnani!
AC: No! In what way?
AB: Do you know Vashu ji well?
AC: Not well, no. But I've met him.
AB: I know Vashu ji very well. We were shooting on an outdoor for Tera Jadu Chal Gaya and Vashu ji sadly got conjunctivitis. He was quarantined in his room and I had to go see him one day. He was in a really bad shape; he had a fever, a cold and conjunctivitis. He sprung out of bed and said, 'Sir, ready sir! Let's go! Picture banate hai!' Vashu ji is a ball of energy! Hit, flop, problem, no problem, he's just this positive ball of energy.
AC: The film is loosely based on the life of Dhirubhai Ambani. Did you study him in any way?
AB: No, because we never thought of it in that way. Mani was very clear that this is a character who has come from nowhere and wants to achieve the world and doesn't want to be apologetic about it. We didn't want to base it on anybody yet there were so many inspirations for us. There were so many people that inspired the storytelling of it, the scenes of it. We never really went and tried to physically base him on anybody.
AC: This was also one of the few films where we see an actor undergo a physical transformation. It wasn't so common back then. What was that like for you? You're in the prime of your leading man phase and then you have to put on all that weight.
AB: I put on 20 kilos and Mani wanted it done progressively because he was going to shoot the film chronologically. We started in Turkey which is the first time we see the adult Gurukant Desai. And in typical Mani fashion, when we're shooting in Badami he suddenly came into my room one night. He said, 'AR (Rahman) has just sent me a great track and I want to shoot it tomorrow'. He said at the end of the film when Guru has children and comes back home, this will be the celebration song! I said but Aishwarya and I have kids like 15 years hence of what we're shooting which means I'm meant to be 15 kilos heavier. He said, 'Arey, we'll figure something out!'
Rahman had sent a track with Bappi da's voice. I remember Ameira Punvani, who was the costume designer, and Aishwarya, took kambals (blankets) from the lodge and made a fat suit for me with razais and then they put a zip on it. It was early May in Badami and we're doing the song to a track which is in Bappi da's voice, and I'm wondering, what is going on! Mani said I had to cut my hair. I said, 'How can I give myself a receding hairline when we're still shooting?' I remember we convinced Manoj Joshi, who was playing my friend, to shave his head. We gave him a bald patch and he was very upset. We took some grey mascara and put some on my hair. It was so hot and I was wearing this suit and I still have this photograph that Rajeev Menon (cinematographer) took of Aishwarya standing in front of the camera with a thermometer with a light meter which has the temperature on it. It said 60 degree Celsius.
The sun was at its harshest so in order to see the actors in the foreground and the background, Rajiv was using kino lights and they're scathing! There were shots where some of the dancers' jutti's soles were peeling off and I was there with this fat suit on.
Then we got back, finished the younger portions and then we had about a 2-week gap where I started eating, and it was fun. I regretted it later because I felt I should've done it a bit more scientifically but I ate as much sweet as I wanted and put on the weight. Losing it was a lot more difficult.
AC: One of my favourite scenes in the film is when you and Aishwarya are standing in front of the mirror and she's pregnant and you're comparing paunches…
AB – It was never there! It was never there in the script!
AC: You improvised on the set?
AB: Mani said, 'Yaar, Guru. Now that you've put on a little weight, you should show it!' He said you come out of the shower with your stomach and then he cut it beautifully to the BGM. I just put a towel around my neck and came out and that was how we shot that scene. Just decided on the spot.
AC: It's a beautiful scene and when she says that you have the thousands of shareholders in your stomach. Did you ever have a moment of vanity while standing in front of the mirror with that paunch?
AB: No. I'm an actor, my job is to look the part and I was very excited about it. And you know, I was asked this during the promotions… like you said, you're 31, you're playing the leading man, etc, etc. I never thought about it because for me it was a Mani Ratnam film. To add to it, it's a great character. Who gets the opportunity at the young age of 30-31 to do something like this? You're so lucky, so just go for it! I mean I would think it would be unnatural for anybody to have doubted doing what I did. It never crossed my mind. Mani said let's show it, I said 'yeah okay'. I had nothing to fear. We've shown him as somebody who is putting on weight with the excesses of life and lifestyle. So I never even thought about it.
AC: The one last scene I want to talk about is the great climax speech where he is so rousing and inspiring and at the end of the government enquiry one of the people on that commission says, 'ye genius hai ya thug?' How hard was that to do?
AB: That's a long answer. I think, till Mani gave me Raavan, this was the toughest thing I'd ever done. There was an instance that I had recollected with Mani about a story my mother had told me about. In 1982 when my father had the accident during Coolie, a gentleman used to come outside Breach Candy (hospital) every day. He would give her a flower and not say anything else and just leave. On the day my father was being discharged, when she reached the hospital, she heard a bit of a scuffle between that same man and some security people. She stopped it saying please don't rough him up or anything. Obviously, the man was very incensed at that point, and he said tell these people not to touch me. He revealed, 'Bachchan ki jo picture hai, uska black karta hu aur unki wajah se meri teeno betiyon ki shaadi kardi hai maine'. (I sell movie tickets for Bachchan's films in black and that's why I could get my three daughters married.) He said I owe my life to this man, don't touch me. I'm just here to give her a rose, I don't want to do anything else. Mani said let's use that. And so if you see in that scene I meet a taxi driver who says because of Shakti shares I've married off all my daughters… Then Guru goes to the courtroom and sits quietly. Doesn't say anything. And then what for me is the moment of the film is when he asks Sujju to speak for him. She's asked who she is and she says, 'I'm 50 per cent partner'. That was such a great moment of equality and being badass. I thought how do you top this! I thought my bit will pale in comparison.
Then Mani said came up with the idea to shoot the scene in 48 frames, which is when you shoot in high speed to make it look like slow motion. We've done songs in 48 frames. Around 2 in the afternoon, Mani said, 'Let's pack up. Let me figure this'. In the evening he called and asked me to come to Sridhar's studio (sound engineer). They had devised that I'm going to dub the scene and it had 7-8 pages of dialogue. They said they'd record me and on set they would play it back in 48 frames, like we do for a song.
Next day on set I wasn't able to start on time. My cue would always go wrong. What they were doing was playing back the dialogue I had recorded in double speed and I had to lip sync. What we had forgotten was that when you do it to a song there's a metre. The spoken word doesn't have a metre. So Sridhar gave me a click track – four clicks before I start the dialogue. It was torture.
Then Mani had another idea. He said let's do it at 12 frames a shot because he wanted that jittery feel. By the end of this ordeal we had shot it in 24 frames, then 48 frames, then 12 frames. And then they went from 12 to 24 to 48 and 48 to 24. By the end of this I was just a mess. I didn't know what was going on. I had almost passed out.