Saturday, February 7, 2015


Release date (India):
February 6, 2015
R. Balki
Amitabh Bachchan, Dhanush, Akshara Haasan

At one point in Shamitabh, when actor Danish (Dhanush) tries to convince aspiring Bollywood filmmaker Akshara (Akshara Haasan) to make a film that taps into his natural physical disability (he is mute), she tells him, “I don’t like all this manipulative, handicapped mush.” Me neither, Ma’am. Apart from reminding us of Shamitabh’s penchant for using the words “handicapped” and “dumb, the line also encapsulates this film’s big problem: it is manipulative wannabe mush.

Make that manipulative, gimmicky, self-conscious, contrived, hero-worshipping mush made by a team that is painfully in awe of its legendary lead actor.

Sadly, at its core, the concept is actually quite marvellous. A film-crazed boy from Igatpuri in Maharashtra travels to Mumbai to become a star. Danish has one problem though: he cannot speak. Still, he manages to impress Akshara who is currently working as an assistant director with a major Bollywood director. Danish has talent, but how can a soundless man be a hero?

Along comes an old drunken wastrel called Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) with a still-fantastic voice who too had tried to make it in films many decades back, but failed. A new technology developed in Finland permits Danish to speak in Amitabh’s voice through a complex procedure, and he becomes an overnight superstar under the screen name Shamitabh.

The catch is that Amitabh Sinha must never reveal himself to the public or the fantasy will be destroyed. The catch is that Amitabh and Danish must get along. The catch is that neither must see the other as a lesser contributor to Shamitabh’s stardom. The catch is that when two human beings have to work together as if they are one, egos are bound to clash.

Many fascinating issues could have been explored in depth in Shamitabh. What makes an actor? Facial expressions, body language, dialogue delivery? What is the crux of a personality? Looks, speech, behaviour? Is it possible for a team to stay together if their success is dependent on only one team member getting the credit for all their work? As Amitabh asks at one point in the film: “Hai koi paani jo chadti hai whiskey ke bina?” But who is the whiskey in this blend?

To draw the audience into those questions though, the film first needed us to buy into the concept of one man speaking in the voice of another. Convincing us to suspend our disbelief on that front required a clever wielding of the pen, it required certain writing touches, time and thought. Writer-director R. Balki, however, seems to be so taken in by the presence of Bachchan in his film that he does not make that necessary effort to wash away viewer cynicism.

Balki does not even address these rather sensitive philosophical questions: Can a mute man be deemed to have gained a voice through technology if the opinions being expressed are not his but those of the person who is lending him that voice? Is a human voice a mere physical sound or is it the expression of thoughts through the medium of that sound?

The frills and flourishes are all there, what’s missing is conviction and a soul. And so, P.C. Sreeram’s cinematography combines with Urvee  Ashar and Shipra Rawal’s production design to create a visually attractive production. The great Ilaiyaraaja’s music is not as magical here as one might expect, but it’s still catchy and blends well with the mood and look of the film.

Playing the part of a mute, not-so-good-looking acting aspirant, Dhanush delivers intensity, humour and pain without over-playing it as a lesser actor might have. Akshara Haasan (whose face is an intriguing blend of dad Kamal Haasan and mom Sarika) is an interesting actor who I know I would like to see more of. It’s a different matter that there is zero sexual chemistry between these two, as a result of which the romantic relationship between them looks forced. Well, good chemistry is about good writing so this bump too is down to you, Mr Balki.

Shamitabh’s Achilles heel, oddly enough, is the man it sets out to deify: Amitabh Bachchan. Both the actor and the character he portrays are weighed down by an embarrassing degree of self-awareness. Lined old faces are beautiful and Bachchan’s is perhaps the hottest of them all, filling us with memories of all those hours of joy he has provided to millions of people for almost five decades now – yes, we get that. Bachchchan’s baritone is so sexy that it is a star in its own right – we know that. Bachchan is amazing with soliloquies – we get that. Bachchan is a master of drunken soliloquies – we know that. The thing is, Mr Balki, you did not need to rub this in our faces because it is our enduring admiration that has made the man a living legend.

Shamitabh stresses and re-stresses every aspect of the much-adored persona – the height, the imposing stature, brooding eyes, deep voice – until you want to scream: “Yes, you managed to cast The Amitabh Bachchan in your film, we get it. Now give us a film. Be a director, not a fan!”

Balki alone cannot be blamed for this. Bachchan himself must take equal blame for accepting a screenplay so acutely conscious of his stardom, and for the way he has played the character. For not a second here is he Amitabh Sinha. In every frame, he is Amitabh Bachchan The Star.

This is Balki’s third film with Bachchan. Cheeni Kum was an entertaining older-man-younger-woman romance. Paa was absurd for the same reason that Shamitabh doesn’t work: Balki didn’t write a screenplay and then visualise Bachchan in the role; instead, he thought of a gimmick – casting real-life son Abhishek as Amitabh’s screen father – and then wrote a screenplay to fit his gimmick. He seems to have worked in reverse once again with Shamitabh, looking for a story revolving around that voice he clearly loves.

At one point in the film, Amitabh Sinha says: “Yeh awaaz ek kutte ke moonh se bhi achchhi lagegi (This voice will sound good even from a dog’s mouth).” True enough. But would I want to watch a film about a dog that speaks with Bachchan’s much-loved baritone, if it was boring, superficial, tedious, stretched, self-absorbed and unable to build on that inventive concept? Gimmicks don’t translate into good cinema. Shamitabh is a stone cold film.

Rating (out of five): 1/2 star

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
155 minutes

Photograph courtesy: Raindrop Media
Videos courtesy: Everymedia PR

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