Bollywood meets Hollywood in this pairing of comedic screen siren Heather Graham of Austin Powers II: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Jimi Mistry, who made his mark in the highly acclaimed East is East.
From the producers of such hits as Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and About A Boy,, this titillating romantic comedy spins the genre formula inside out. Although the story was initially conceived by executive producer Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl), it was the zany mastery of screenwriter Tracey Jackson who developed the script into an original, offbeat romp of mishap-laden love.
The idea? To pit love against “this whole notion today of `Spiritualism on one’s own terms’,” says von Scherler Mayer. “It’s a play on `Well yes, let me try and squeeze you in between my yoga instructor, my therapist and the next session with my spiritual guru.” Basically, love served up on a New Age platter.
“The inspiration? Shekhar Kapur. The premise was derived from his experience when he first moved to London as a really young guy. He just wanted to go there and meet pretty blonde girls,” she notes. “But there was this whole reaction to him. People were sort of held in awe about the whole mystical aspect of where he was from: India.”
“This film deals with how much of our culture gets imported throughout the world and this whole distorted reality that evolves from that,” she adds. “What’s nice about this film is the message of tolerance that plays out particularly at this time. Yes it evolves around romance and it is a raucous sex comedy but the underlying theme is love conquers all and to accept everybody for who and what they are. If you look at the great comedies of the past, a lot of them had a message underneath the humor. In our case, it helps that we have a gorgeous guy from another country and Heather Graham delivering the message. ”
For Graham, delivery was no problem. “I believe in its message – that people should be free to be themselves. And where else would I get to play a Hindi princess, a porn star, a bride and a teacher all in one film?”
For Mistry, playing Ramu was deciphering the essence of the immigrant experience. Although he had never been to India or New York, he identified with the character’s dreams and weaknesses “and I realized it was immaterial where he is from,” Mistry says. “For most of the film he is like a fish out of water and a lot of the comedy comes from dealing with the situations he encounters in New York. He just wants to be an actor, a star. He inadvertently achieves that by becoming this guru and that brings all the trappings of fame and fortune that he had always dreamed about.” But conscience gets the better of him and Ramu becomes “unsure that he is doing the right thing, capitalizing on the American public’s appetite for a guru,” Mistry adds. Deceiving his devotees is one thing, betraying Sharonna is another. The lifestyle may be lavish, continues Mistry, but it’s an empty victory and not worth the price of “endangering the one thing that gives his life meaning: Love.”
On the flipside, Marisa Tomei’s Lexi comes from fortune and the social circles of fame, but jumps from one therapy guru to the next hoping to fill a deep void of unhappiness. “The film is about what makes you happy and Lexi is not happy,” says Tomei. “She starts out spoiled but winds up getting turned on spiritually by this guru. In the end she’s disciplined, dedicated and finds peace.” Lexi’s soul-searching journey treads a similar path as the others – “wonderful but not necessarily the journey expected,” she adds.
“A guru leads you to the Truth and changes your interior landscape,” says Jackson. In Lexi’s case, “she has spent her life giving away pieces of her power to others. Then Ramu comes along and she hands it all over to him. In the end he helps her see what she did for him, but she also discovers her truth and the Guru in herself.”
As for Ramu, “he reluctantly becomes a guru for others and eventually for himself. In a sense, he was one from the beginning but he just didn’t realize it. It’s evident from his first line: `Dance is like love. You move your feet to the beat of your heart’.”
That philosophy is what leapt off the page, literally and figuratively for director von Scherler Mayer. Love for the script turned into a dance spectacle with moves the Travolta of Grease has never seen: Bollywood style.
“From the moment I read it, I visualized it… just one of those amazing magical experiences that rarely happens to a director,” she says. “I immediately knew what I could do with it. I had done Party Girl on a shoestring budget and had dreamed of a more expansive production, broader in content and scope. This was it - `The Opportunity’.”
Enter Choreographer Mary Ann Kellogg. First step, “emersion : Bollywood vs. Hollywood musical. With Bollywood, they (Indian choreographers) take the `30s musicals of Fred and Ginger and re-invent the form. What we’ve done is take that re-invention and re-invented it here,” Kellogg says. “What we kept is their way of telling the story through gesture and a lot of folk steps. I actually applied several of their storytelling forms of dance.”
Visually stunning, those forms are “Unique. They tier their dance, which looks very rich in the frame,” she continues. “You have one set of dancers in the front, one set in the middle and one set in the back. And the actor is always looking into the camera, which you would never see Fred Astaire do. He would always be looking at Ginger” as Travolta looked at Olivia Newton-John in Grease.
There are four eye-popping numbers and in one Mistry sings in Hindi. In the finale, Kellogg used about 50 dancers from numerous universities, all members of South Asian bangra dance groups. For the prince and princess, Kellogg used two modern dancers from New York.
“In the traditional Hollywood musicals of the `30s, there would be at least six weeks time to design, construct and rehearse the musical numbers before principle photography began. Plus, the music would be tailor made for the numbers,” she notes. “Today prep time is almost non-existent. We had two days to shoot the material on video and then we shot it in full costume on film. It was a lucky break.”
Lucky maybe, but not a seamless feat for Costume Designer Michael Clancy. “We had to make all the costumes for 50 dancers (for the finale). It’s not like going out and buying 30 white t-shirts. And we ran into the same problem as Mary Ann. There just was no prep time for these kind of production numbers,” says Clancy. “We were literally sewing beads on costumes on the back of the truck while everything else was in production. On one dress rehearsal they had to shoot the next day. That morning I needed Valium!!” quipped Clancy. “Visions of bugle beads popping off right and left had made me a wreck. It was a wild ride to the very end.” But it was worth every angst-ridden moment. “I love this whole mad Bollywood scene. What’s really wonderful about working on a picture like this is the color and sparkle of it – something where you would normally want to `hold back.’ But with this, it’s the more the merrier.”
The Guru was filmed in and around New York City and New Delhi, India. Production began April 18 and wrapped June 20. The company filmed its New York scenes in Times Square, Chinatown, Midtown, the meat packing district, Harlem, the Upper and Lower East Side, NoHo, Central Park, Hunts Point (155th Street), Queens, Brooklyn, the George Washington Bridge and the New York City Subway. Lexi’s luxuriant penthouse apartment was shot in NoHo. Ramu’s walkup apartment was set in Queens. Scenes for the elaborate Hindi dream dance sequence and Ramu’s Broadway debut were filmed in Harlem at the ornate, historical United Palace Church on 175Th and Broadway, also known as Reverand Ike’s. Sharonna’s wedding was filmed in Brooklyn’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church. The company decided to sidestep any filming on a studio lot. “You just can’t replicate the atmosphere of New York City in a studio,” notes producer and Working Title Co-Chairman Tim Bevan. “It was that important to film on the streets of New York.”