Guru In Seven

Writer and director Shani Grewal's Guru In Seven (1998) tells the story of Sanjay, a 28 year old British South Asian artist struggling to make it big. He has just broken up with his Black girlfriend, Jill, and finds escape in “getting laid” which leads to his friends, both men and women, persuading him to become the titular “Guru”, if he can manage to sleep with seven women in seven consecutive days. Following the likes of Alfie (1966), Annie Hall (1977) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Sanjay narrates and pontificates throughout the film, frequently breaking the fourth wall. He’s crass, crude, sharp, intelligent, confident and is played charismatically by Nitin Ganatra.

Digital illustration of Guru In Seven, Nitin Ganatra’s Sanjay.
Guru In Seven, digital illustration by Hamish Mèk Chohan.

Ganatra draws you into Sanjay’s absurd sexual odyssey through his charm and fallibility. Made in the lad culture years, the film has been criticised for its crassness; the Radio Times described Grewal’s efforts with, “he demonstrates that Asian males are just as laddish as their other racial counterparts.” However, I disagree with this reductive reading and of the generalisation, siding more with Empire’s reading. “Ultimately, Guru’s greatest strength is its heartfelt refusal to pander to a (white) audience’s expectations of cornershop-owning Asian Britain. Many characters might easily be substituted for other races without undermining the storyline - yes, young Indians also swear, smoke, drink and screw.

Akin to Wild West (1992), which incidentally also starred Lalita Ahmed and Ravi Kapoor as the protagonist’s mother and brother, Guru In Seven doesn’t conform. Researching the reviews for the film I have found they all largely comment on the identity of the lead being (British South) Asian and strive for a comparison in an attempt to justify why someone like Sanjay would do such a thing. Appreciating the film was released in the 90’s, why can’t his actions and decisions just be? It’s a story of dalliances that happens to be led by a British South Asian, frankly discussing and presenting his life. His heritage, as a second generation South Asian immigrant, is incidental.

However, I do also appreciate that the convenience of the character’s identity lends to Grewal's exploration of generationalism, interatrial relationships, racism and anti-blackness. For all his flaws Sanjay does confront the expectations placed on him from South Asian parents regarding his choice of career, his promiscuity and eventually even the racism his parents show towards his Black girlfriend, Jill. As an additional observation, I think it was an interesting choice to cast Gurdial Sira as Sanjay’s father and Saeed Jaffrey as the father of a potential romantic partner, Amarjeet, played brilliantly by Harvey Virdi. Both Sira and Jaffrey are well regarded actors and can often be found portraying first generation immigrants in British productions, both also starring in My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). However, given the tonal choice and pace of the film, they seem markedly from the past - I’m used to seeing these actors being given a space to breath on the screen - against Sanjay’s cutting retorts and the fly-on-the-wall camerawork, it’s as if Grewal was clearly drawing a line in the sand between generations.

Fundamentally Guru In Seven is a film about Sanjay’s relationship with women. It’s a male fantasy and as such skewed to Sanjay’s convictions and will. From Lynne Michelle's Candy "The Model", Amanda Pointer's Gaynor "The Rich Photographer" to Jacqueline Pearce's Joan "The Oyster Lady", his sexual partners are not presented as equals but conquests. Sanjay largely gets who he wants consistently. The consequences of Sanjay’s actions are not really felt until the end of the film, but even then, there’s a glimmer of hope that all is not lost, that he cannot loose. Sanjay may have embarked on an exploration of the carnal due to a bet amongst friends but there’s no doubt this could continue if he wished it too. With the absence of true repercussions, the film could easily have become Guru In A Month.

Grewal has also written the majority of the women Sanjay sleeps with as being white, subverting the exoticisation for the South Asian gaze. In opposite the South Asian women in the film pursue him, are written as the “attainable” who lust after Sanjay. This is not to not to say women cannot conquer men, and I think Jacqueline Pearce’s “The Oyster Lady” serves to prove Grewal's point. However, again, there is no equality when addressing the sexual dynamics, by day 6 Sanjay is on a drug binge before sleeping with a mature white women, Pearce. Whilst on day 7 Virdi’s Amarjeet threatens Sanjay with reporting false allegations of assault and rape because he chooses to turn down her pursuit.

Failing the Bechdel test spectacularly, I do wonder why I’m demanding more from this film than it really needs to deliver on, after all it is a dramatic comedy made over 22 years ago. Does a white audience ask the same questions about representation and equality when watching something as equally bawdy with a white male protagonist? Maybe because there remains so few British South Asian films, I’m demanding more from a presently limited resource. I’m optimistically expecting pre-2020 South Asian writers and directors to have anticipated and assumed a level of wokeness in a vastly different environment than today so that I can reflect on my representation with a bit more pride. I can't dismiss certain language used in the film, a slur towards a gay character, and can only accept it as being, "of its time". I also enjoyed watching Ganatra'a perfoarmance so much that I wanted more, to see his world in a more unbiased way rather than via Sanjay’s own ego-driven outlook.

It was my first-time watching Guru In Seven, which I only discovered its existence back in 2018. Discontinued some time ago, it’s not exactly a film you’re likely to stumble across unless you happen to be watching Channel 4 in the earlier hours of the morning, circa late 1990s / early 2000s, or are actively seeking to pay extortionate prices for a 17 year old DVD, a.k.a. “me”. Appreciating I would have been 13 back in 1998, I clearly wasn’t the target audience when it comes to marketing this film, but I have no recollection of its release. Comparatively, I definitely did Justin Kerrigan's superb indie, Human Traffic (1999), which was only released a year later and uses a similar breaking the fourth wall rule to continue the narrative.

I don’t think the power of representation is really appreciated. Argued superbly in Hari Kondabolu's The Problem With Apu (2017), when all you see of yourself is ridicule, exaggeration or cast as an incidental non-entity consigned to the cornershop, onscreen, that has an impact. It not only pigeonholes you but also perpetuates a narrative allowing others to enforce your minimisations. Slight deviation but around this time, when I was 13, I can vividly remember being asked what monkey brains taste like because someone had watched Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984) one weekend.

If I had watched Guru In Seven in my early teens, I highly doubt I would have grown up and become some sort of Lothario. However, I do feel I would have gained more confidence in myself, seeing someone with my skin colour and accent, be so sure of his abilities, worth, position and entitlement. I went to art school and was once told by another student that I was only there because they had a colour quota to fill. I wish then that I had the confidence to say I was there because I had proved I was good enough to be there, just like everyone else, rather than laugh it off. That’s how Nitin Ganatra’s performance made me feel, for all of Sanjay's fuck ups, his conviction meant something to him and me. All that from a 90s drama sex comedy.