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The Guru (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Offers a cagey take on cultural influences and intersections.

The Guru

Director: Daisy von Scherler Mayer
Cast: Jimi Mistry, Heather Graham, Marisa Tomei, Emil Marwa, Dash Mihok, Christine Baranski, Michael McKean
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Universal
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 1969-12-31

The similarities between porn movies and musicals have been frequently noted. In both, character and plot take a back seat to a series of set pieces designed for visceral, immediate pleasure. Daisy von Scherler Mayer's new film, The Guru, explores this confluence, with one of its romantic leads a porn performer and the other a dancer, then adds another combinatory layer: cross-cultural desire. One of the lovers to be is a white New Yorker who aspires to an ideal marriage and suburban home; the other is a young émigré from India, come to the States to become the next John Travolta.

The Guru begins with Ramu (Jimi Mistry, the British actor best known in the States for East Is East), an enthusiastic dance instructor in New Delhi who beguiles his middle-aged women students with his cleverly passionate rendition of the Macarena. "Move your feet to the beat of your heart," he urges, as they do their best to mirror his swiveling hips and gracefully twisting limbs. At the end of class, Ramu announces that he's leaving for the U.S., where he hopes to make his fortune. That is, he wants to follow in the footsteps of his cousin, Vijay (Emil Marwa), whose letters home extol the great fun and brilliance of living in NYC.

When Ramu arrives at his cousin's doorstep, however, he realizes that the stories are somewhat exaggerated. The red Mercedes is actually the cab Vijay drives to make ends meet, and the penthouse is an apartment over a bargain movie theater in Queens ("It's the top floor!" insists Vijay). Disappointed, Ramu insists that he just wants his chance at the American Dream. "You why they call it the American Dream?" Vijay asks. "Because it only happens when you're asleep."

Undeterred, Ramu pursues his dream. When it turns out that he's not so good at playing the stereotypical Indian restaurant waiter (he dumps the "chicken fuckin' tiki masala" on an obnoxious patron's head), Ramu auditions for Ramrod Productions, unaware that the company makes porn. He dances up a storm in the office, stripping to his underwear and reinventing Tom Cruise's routine for "Old Time Rock n' Roll" (sung on the soundtrack in Ramu's head by Vishal Ailawadhi) and impressing director Dwain (Michael McKean) with his energy and originality ("Most guys, they come in here and they wax the dolphin").

In an effort to capitalize on Ramu's "Oriental cabana boy thing," Dwain renames him "Rammy" and puts him on a "Fantasy Island" set with his best leading lady, the fearless Sharrona (Heather Graham). Unable to "achieve wood" (and so, fired), Ramu is nonetheless quite taken with his would-have-been co-star's philosophical bent. And she is full of New Agey aphorisms: "Your naked body is really just a costume," "The universe isn't run by some big old perv," and, of course, "The most powerful sexual organ God gave us is our brain."

Later that night, Ramu puts this good knowledge to the test, when he's called on to play the "Swami Bu" at the last minute, before an upper-crusty dinner party crowd where Vijay is working for the caterer. It's a tough audience, including the disquieting ice queen Chantal (Christine Baranski) and her miserably wifty daughter Lexi (Marisa Tomei), but once Ramu starts repeating Sharrona's mantras, he has everyone joyously dancing around the mansion. It helps that he is able to achieve wood that night, servicing Lexi so well that she proclaims him the Guru of Sex, and sends him forth to minister to all the unhappy ladies (and men, and couples, and lesbians) she knows.

In order to sustain his charade, Ramu convinces Sharrona to tutor him, absorbing her spiritual take on sex. He's lying to her (she thinks he wants her instruction in order to have another go in porn), but that's okay, because she's lying to her fiancé, Rusty (Dash Mihok), a strapping fireman who thinks she's a bespectacled schoolteacher. No surprise, all these secrets (and a few others, including Rusty's doozy) must out in order for the proper couple to find one another.

That this proper couple is Sharrona and Ramu is only one of The Guru's crossover complexities. Their true love develops as a matter of course, and, as must happen in such fairy tales, each must learn something from the other. All lessons have to do with honesty and commitment to your dreams, despite and because of the fact that these ideals might not always coincide. Executive produced and conceived by Shekhar Kapur (Bandit Queen and Elizabeth), the film offers a cagey take on cultural influences and intersections. An affectionate satire of porn aesthetics (in one scene, Sharrona plays a whip-wielding dominatrix, with Ramu as a Roman gladiator in chains), conjoined with Hollywood and Bollywood musicals, the film finds their corresponding spiritual and sexual rhythms.

This even as the plot is as silly and predictable as can be: with Lexi's money and connections behind him, Ramu parlays Sharrona's wisdom (including a sensuous lesson on how to "feel" the lyrics of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are") and his own charisma into the stardom he so covets. Soon he has a guest appearance on Sally Jesse Raphael, and seems on his way to becoming as beloved and desired by U.S. consumers as Deepak Chopra.

Still, Ramu must come to terms with the lies he has told Sharrona, much less his pilfering over her philosophical meanderings to jumpstart his new "career." His combination of guilt and desire comes to a delirious climax as he watches a Bollywood musical on tv. The characters on screen are transformed into Sharrona and Ramu, dancing and lip-synching "You're the One That I Want."

At last, he's John Travolta, on the tv of his dreams, the Grease fairgrounds set replaced by a sumptuous Bollywood staircase, Olivia Newton John's famous leotard now Sharrona's silk sari. And at last, Ramu realizes what he must do -- declare his love ("My heart beats for you!") and touch his soul. Sex, song, and Sally Jesse Raphael. The Guru celebrates -- and turns inside out -- cultural cross-pollinations. It's also so completely charmed by itself that it's impossible to resist.

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