Lessons of "The Guru"
Whether the new movie, "The Guru," realizes it or not, it has something to teach us. What could it be? Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer probably hopes it's how to make the perfect crossover movie. The movie's star, Jimi Mistry, no doubt hopes it's how to become the biggest Indian star in Hollywood since Sabu the Elephant Boy.
But the movie's lesson is actually something far more subtle and subversive.
Remember the old familiar complaint that the West always takes something from the East, polishes and patents it and then sells it as its own? It's a familiar litany. We Indians learned it in our text books while growing up in India: How the British destroyed our industry and made us produce cotton and indigo that went to factories in Lancaster only to be turned into cloth that was sold back to us. The pattern continues to this day. Environmental activists were fuming when the American company Rice-Tec nabbed a patent for Basmati rice. And then there were all those insidious Western attempts to patent traditional herbal remedies like neem and turmeric.
Well, "The Guru" turns all that on its head.
The movie's basic premise is simple: an Indian dance instructor named Ramu (Jimi Mistry) has his fill of teaching macarena to housewives and sets off with a suitcase full of dreams to become a big film star in America. But the first role he gets is ... in a porno film. (Frankly, I would have thought porn would be harder for an Indian man to break into than a mainstream Hollywood film.)
Unfortunately, Ramu can't perform on cue. So he starts getting lessons on the "philosophy of sex" from his blonde co-star, Sharonna (played by Heather Graham). And then he regurgitates that to the well-heeled Manhattanites he meets (led by a starry-eyed Marisa Tomei) who take him for a bona-fide sex guru and swoon over Swami Boo's Oriental pearls of wisdom.
Did you see the Great India Sleight of Hand trick that just happened? Swami Boo, aka Ramu Gupta, gets his ideas from a Westerner and sells them back to Westerners who believe they are drinking from the fount of 100 percent unadulterated fresh-from-the-Himalayas Indian wisdom. At least the Brits had the decency to turn Indian cotton into substandard cloth before they sold it back to the natives. Ramu barely bothers to change the wrapping paper. It's a brilliant mind-boggling cannibalistic strategy.
At a press conference recently, Jimi Mistry quipped about his qualifications as the Guru of Sex: "You've got to remember that India invented sex. After all they wrote the book on it."
The conceit of "The Guru" is that Ramu doesn't have to know even Position One of the Kamasutra. He doesn't even have to open the book. His Kamasutra comes from a blonde porn actress who plays a horny junior senator from Wisconsin on a desert island. Can you imagine the possibilities this opens up, especially now that we hear India fever is sweeping Britain and starting to infect America?
"The Guru" teaches us that we just have to pretend to be Indian to cash in on the fever. Of course it also implies that someone is a fraud and that everyone else is a fool. But who bothers with pesky ethics when there's money to be minted? And that, Mr Deepak Chopra, is the one step to success.
Say you're surfing the Web and you found a recipe for curry in Sunset Magazine that was invented by a housewife in Portland, Oregon. Just pretend it's your old family recipe, that your grandmother carried in her blouse from Rawalpindi in Pakistan when she fled to Delhi in 1947.
How about taking a Bollywood film that actually lifts its plot from two Hollywood films and then remaking it in Hollywood as a true-blue Indian classic? This might be in the works. A producer in Los Angeles has already bought the rights for the Hindi bank-robbery caper "Aankhen" and plans to reincarnate it in Hollywood as "Three Blind Mice."
Or you could teach "authentic, centuries-old Indian yoga" to impressionable Westerners when you really learned it from that white instructor at your local YMCA.
Or you could be Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen who took Elizabeth Goudge's novel, "The Rosemary Tree," changed the setting to an Indian village and passed it off as her own novel, "Cranes Morning." The Washington Post's book critic gushed "exquisite" and added that the story was "at once achingly familiar and breathtakingly new. ... Gyaltsen believes we all live in one borderless culture."
He was closer to the truth than even he realized.
Gyaltsen's story ended tragically, however. When the real truth came out, she committed suicide. "The Guru," of course, is much luckier: It gets a Hollywood ending.
Or is that Bollywood? One just can't be sure anymore.
Sandip Roy is associate editor of Pacific News Service and host of Upfront , the PNS weekly radio program on KALW-FM San Francisco.