With all due respect to 2002’s enormously successful “Greek Wedding,” the best cinematic nuptials of last year were of the “Monsoon” variety. But Mira Nair’s colorful, subtle tale of a big family gathering in Delhi to celebrate the union of a local girl and a groom long resident in America represented not merely a popular bit of exotica but part of a recent boomlet of western interest in things Indian: the nomination of “Lagaan” for the best foreign film Oscar was another, as also was the appearance of the Bollywood-inspired “Bombay Dreams,” produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, in London (and, presumably, soon on Broadway).
So it’s hardly surprising that there’s now an attempt to give the conventions of a typical Hollywood romantic comedy an Indian spin; “The Guru” takes a by-the-numbers plot about a sweet-natured guy whose halting relationship with the girl obviously meant for him is undercut by deception, and adds to it some comic raunchiness and a strong eastern flavor. (In food terms it’s rather like a main course of “The Graduate” with a big side order of spicy curry.) The resultant dish might turn off some viewers with its highly permissive sexual attitudes and a few Indian-Americans with its stereotyping (just as some Greek-Americans were troubled by the characters in Nia Vardalos’ unlikely blockbuster), but overall it’s good-natured, whimsical and actually pretty funny.
Jimi Mistry stars as sad-sack Dehli dance instructor Ramu Gupta, who makes his way to New York to become the new “Grease”-era John Travolta. The only job he can find apart from waiter gigs, though, is in the porno flicks of sleazy producer Dwain (Michael McKean). (His audition scene is a gem.) He doesn’t prove very successful at “adult entertainment,” but the few scenes he tries to shoot bring him into contact with Sharrona (Heather Graham), a superstar in the seedy branch of celluloid who fools her fireman boyfriend Rusty (Dash Mihok) into believing that she’s just a demure substitute schoolteacher. Under the pretense of getting tips from Sharrona about how to relax in order to succeed in the business, Ramu learns enough of her flaky New Age philosophy to put it to use in the guise of a swami whose messages about the liberating character of very free love gain him the adoration of New York society (represented by fulfilment-starved Lexi, played by Marisa Tomei) and turn him into a media darling. Of course he’s simultaneously falling in love with Sharrona, who’d be horrified by Ramu’s misuse of her ideas. Everything winds up, “Graduate”-style, at the church where Sharonna and Rusty are scheduled to tie the knot.
Part of the fun of Tracey Jackson’s script is that it revels in the most obvious cliches of the genre while sprucing them up with some agreeably goofy riffs about the porno business and the pretensions of high society and adding some charmingly kitschy allusions to the glittery Bollywood style. Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer gives it all an amiably loose feel, the technical crew does a workmanlike job, and the cast play it with gusto. Mistry’s likable nerdiness dovetails nicely with Graham’s loopy seriousness, and Tomei has a field day as the ditzy Lexi; as Dwain, McKean is happily more restrained than is often the case. Among the supporting cast Ajay Naidu (whom you might remember from Mike Judge’s “Office Space”) stands out as Ramu’s perpetually horny roommate Sanjiv.
Apart from the Indian elements, “The Guru” offers little that’s new, but at least it adds some welcome ethnic zest to its familiar formula.