Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Akshara Haasan, Dhanush
Director: R Balki
It’s not a picture, it’s a mixture.
When Amitabh Bachchan repeatedly warned about Shamitabh’s Avant Garde approach in the trailers, little did the audience realise that it’s actually going to be the case. The flip side of being experimental is the risk of being misunderstood, or worse, appearing confused.
There’re spoilers ahead, so you’re requested to come back to this review after watching the film. Scroll down if you think against this idea.
Danish (Dhanush) is a mute Marathi boy who is simply in love with films, first Hindi and then Hollywood. After a lot of debacles, he manages to arrive in Mumbai, but couldn’t convey his intensity to anybody other than a tender hearted assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan). Suddenly, a medical marvel enables him to speak with a borrowed voice and his search for the perfect baritone ends on a cynical drunkard in the form of failed actor Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan). The exclusivity of a star’s face makes the voice behind its success remain in the oblivion, but then, can one exist without the other? Or, whose success is it, the speechless actor’s or the faceless dubbing artist’s? More importantly, can ego overshadow the sanctity of art?
Director R Balki makes it absolutely clear in the very first sequence that he is going to play with the cinematic senses of the indigenous spectators. A newly found Bollywood superstar addresses the media and stresses on the fact that he is here to stay. The basic idea of watching someone as delicate looking as Dhanush with Amitabh Bachchan’s voice does wonders, and sets up the mood of the film. A fantastic build up, to say the least.
Prior to that, a local teacher asks little Danish in school to enact a scene where his mother has just died and the kid comes up with a mesmerising performance. This is the beginning of the first act where we see Danish’s absolute urge to become a film actor. This scene is well written and establishes the premise.
Very soon, Dhanush leaves his village and enters Bollywood and impresses Akshara who willingly helps him to rise above the physical challenges. The arrival of evil-tongued, jealousy prone Amitabh Sinha on the scene makes the story two dimensional and here begins the confusion. Here onwards, the two tracks keep crossing each other and continue to make a mess of the otherwise intriguing plot.
Remember, how Dhanush was getting interviewed in the beginning. The question-answer format allows the director to unfold the story in a cut-to-cut way, a tactic to squeeze more in less screen time. It’s evident from the beginning that Dhanush has been briefed well about his character as he has captured tiny details and the essence of being a newcomer with a handicap. In one scene, Akshara tries to take his audition on a mobile phone and his expressions clearly display his disappointment of not being in front of a bigger camera. Similarly, Dhanush’s expressions are priceless when the new technology brings out Amitabh Sinha’s voice out of his throat for the first time. The film, rather ‘fillum’ as Ilaiyaraja’s background score calls it, spreads the canvas in front of Dhanush to bask in the sun and then Big B snatches away the lion’s share. However, it’s dramatic and stimulating till this point.
The creation of drama is not drama enough. Balki gives Bachchan a window to reminiscence, and the actor gladly accepts it. He says how his bass laden voice fetched him rejection from everywhere and how he will now set the score even with the film fraternity. He takes names and idolises actor Robert De Niro, basically everything Amitabh the actor would do in real life. And what gets hampered in the process? The evolution of Dhanush’s character graph, who from a parallel storyline turns into the halo-supplier. I wish it would have been more subtle like his character who was a bus conductor once. Reminds you of something!
The film that they are shooting is called Lifebuoy because it’s about the crusade against the society’s viruses (keetanu). A humorous take indeed and here comes out the craftsmanship of R Balki. He is great in comic scenes. For example, Dhanush is shooting for a song Piddly where the heroine needs to pee. The director makes the word Piddly a metaphor for commode and the nonsense is grabbed with enthusiasm at the box-office. A good take on Bollywood’s brand of toilet humour.
The comic scenes get fewer in number and Shamitabh is pushed into becoming an ego battle. Sinha says, “Paani me whiskey wo…hai koi paani jo chadhe whishkey ke bina.” The earnestness of Dhanush’s acting and Amitabh’s overpowering presence make it an uneven battle where the former doesn’t look selfish enough and that sabotages the intensity. How would you justify the ego battle when one seems justified?
But, this is just the beginning. Shamitabh marches forward to become a half-baked take on the tricky relationship between the artist and his art. When Akshara says, “Ego ki bible likhne se pehle label to padh liya hota,” it appears to be coming from the viewer’s mouth. Or, maybe it’s judgmental because we are yet to take the surrealist cinema in its right spirit. Basically, the self reflective narrative remains neither comic nor tragic after a certain point of time. Interestingly, Amitabh Sinha utters towards the end, “Truth is the most powerful idea,” and then goes on to explain how truth can be exploited for monetary gains, absolutely in tandem with the film’s confused texture.
At another juncture, Sinha says, “No handicap is a bigger handicap,” and this sums up the idea behind the creation of Shamitabh. Only that the story starts with it and boils down to a fireless, unconvincing ego clash. In a nut shell, the paradoxes do need some kind of build-up and justification.Despite flaws, Balki is definitely a brave director who has attempted something new in Shamitabh. The concept is novel and he deserves a pat on the back for it. He loses his grip somewhere during the transition from sarcasm to irony, still he gives the glimpses into his latent talent. Certainly an able director.
Amitabh Bachchan is the one who runs the show, aptly supported by Dhanush and Akshara. In fact, you would be left for wanting more of Dhanush. Amitabh Bachchan is a superstar and matching him frame to frame can make most of the actors sweat profusely but Dhanush, who is just one film old in Hindi, deals with the pressure like a pro. The lead trio is the soul of the film and they make Shamitabh an engaging watch for most of its 153 run time. Akshara Haasan makes an impressive debut.
For the ones who constantly look for light hearted moments; the film has Rekha telling Dhanush, “Take care of your face, and also your voice. It’s the god’s voice.”
(Interact with Rohit Vats at Twitter/@nawabjha)