Some time ago, before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sashayed across the Gulf Coast, I had promised to write about three movies that I considered to be underrated gems. I got through the first two—Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion and Harvard Man. Here, at long last, for all twelve of you who were waiting with bated breath, is entry #3. Enjoy.
Early on in The Guru, Ramu (Jimi Mistry) gets a rude awakening. After expounding on the virtues of the American Dream, a friend offers his rebuttal: “You know why they call it the American Dream? Because it only happens when you are asleep.” Indeed, Ramu’s been dreaming of America his whole life—just not the real one. Bored with the Bollywood spectacles of his Indian youth and with what he sees as a glittering, gaudy country, he falls in love with America because of watching Grease. He becomes a dance instructor who moves and dresses just like John Travolta—tight black jeans, shined black shoes, even the facsimile of a duck’s-ass haircut. It’s the first great joke of the movie. Grease is as corny and melodramatic as what Ramu thinks he’s escaping—the only thing different is the language.
He comes to Manhattan under the delusion that his cousin Vijay (Emil Marwa) has struck it rich. Instead of the red convertible Vijay promised in letters, there’s a taxicab. Instead of a penthouse, there’s a second-floor walk-up in a shitty part of town. Instead of exotic new dishes, there’s the same food Ramu had at home—only, this time, he has to serve it to people instead of eating it.
Still, Ramu dreams of making it big as an American actor and dancer. (The heyday of the American movie musical passed decades ago, but nobody told Ramu.) When he answers an audition call for a movie to be produced by Ramrod Productions, we know what’s coming, but the nature of the movie isn’t clear to Ramu until he steps onto the set. We root for him anyway, because Mistry makes sure we understand the difference between the character’s naiveté and stupidity. Mistry is gorgeous, with liquid brown eyes, a sense of sinuous body movement, and a comically naïve, but honest face. He’s not a total rube—sometimes, he cuts to the quick in a way the other characters refuse to do—but he doesn’t seem to know how attractive he is, which makes him all the funnier. He’s aware of the effect he has on women, but he’s got no clue as to why.
It’s the sincerity that’s so charming, and which ensures that he’ll become the success story that he always dreamed of being. He inadvertently becomes a “sex guru” to the neurotic rich of Manhattan, raking in big bucks by spouting homilies and insipid catchphrases. He says them so sincerely that he dupes everyone from hippies to young power couples. He proves the old adage that a white person will believe absolutely anything a brown-skinned person says, as long as it’s said with conviction. It’s not the type of acting he envisioned for himself, but it suits him. He’s a fraud, sure, but the most sincere fraud you’ve ever seen. Mistry is so good that you sense Ramu comes to believe in this malarkey. He’s so sexy that he’s seduced himself. The better he gets as a nonsense-spouting, fame-addled guru, the more honestly romantic and swoon-worthy he becomes.
The Guru dresses American tropes in saris and dhotis, and giggles as its characters treat them as newfound glories. Ramu has siphoned his homilies from a white pornstar Sharonna (Heather Graham), with whom he’s fallen in love. She’s the core of his scheme, but the rich folks wouldn’t trust a word she said to them. He convinces his first group of true believers of his “philosophy” by dancing what Lexi refers to as “one of those ancient Hindu trance dance things!” It’s really the Macarena. The song he sings to accompany the dance comes from an Indian film—it’s the equivalent of singing “You’re the One that I Want” at church, and having the congregation take it for a sacred spiritual.
Daisy Von Scherler Mayer rips into our desire to romanticize foreign cultures. Ramu imagines American life as a Broadway musical. The porn director (Michael McKean) who casts him, and renames him “Rammy,” does so because Ramu looks like a “native”—which country he’s a native of isn’t relevant. The masses fall under Ramu’s guru blather because they think a “primitive” such as himself must be in better touch with his sexuality than they are. (A great throwaway joke has Vijay and Ramu walking and talking. Vijay admits that he’s only practiced portions of The Kama Sutra on himself; Ramu hasn’t read it at all.)
But Von Scherler Mayer is interested in more than mockery. The Guru is surprisingly warm for a raunchy screwball comedy, and it’s clear that the director loves Bollywood movies even as she teases their conventions. She loves her flawed characters even as she filets them. Lexi best embodies this cockeyed empathy. She’s not exactly the love interest, though Ramu beds her happily, but she is the engine that drives his success. She’s hardnosed enough to be his business manager—she’s rich enough to know how money works, and what the guru’s clientele is willing to pay for “enlightenment”—but she’s a flake in every other way.
Lexi is played by Marisa Tomei. Like so many movies in which she’s a supposedly supporting character, Tomei steals the show. Whereas Graham’s demeanor is a little too guarded and brittle for this movie, Tomei flings herself around. Her comments erupt from her, genteel but ridiculous. A scene in which she tries to seduce Ramu almost made me pee my pants from laughing so hard. “Undress me slowly, spiritually, like a goddess”—she emphasizes that last syllable, like a person who’s saying the word for the first time; she does that with all words she wants to make “exotic”—“like Vishnu.” Ramu informs her that Vishnu is a man. “Kali?” she stammers. “Kali is the goddess of death and destruction!” She shucks off her dress, muttering “Death and destruction,” as if she’s taking notes. God help her, she wants to learn.
You can laugh snidely at Lexi all you want (I sure did), but you like her (and are turned on by her) all the same. Tomei plays the role with complete conviction, and her body quivers with delight and disappointment. We can read the emotions inside Lexi on every inch of her skin. We get excited when she does. Likewise, we can sneer at the porn producers, but they’re genuinely kind people with brains and wit. Ramu might be unbearably innocent, but he’s no fool. The Guru is full of dopes, but they’re our dopes.