R Balki was put on earth for two reasons. One, to provide exciting projects for Ilayaraja and ensure that the maestro doesn’t languish in the south. Two, to provide exciting projects for Amitabh Bachchan and ensure that the superstar doesn’t languish in the shadow of his super-image. About the latter, first. When it comes to Bachchan, Balki is like a little boy who loves to dismantle and reassemble his favourite toy. Consciously or not, what he’s accomplished, over his films, is a sort of de-iconisation of the icon. In Cheeni Kum, we saw Bachchan play the kind of role usually played by someone half his age, and the part too – a rom-com leading man – was something new for the actor. (He’s done romances, but not rom-coms.) Then in Paa, the actor morphed into… well, I don’t know if there’s a name for it. The face, the stature, the voice we knew – everything had changed. And we saw Bachchan as he’s never been seen, as a child actor.
The de-iconisation continues in Shamitabh. What if Bachchan never became a star? What, in fact, if he never even got a chance to be in the movies? What if he was stuck doing the voiceovers he was doing at the early part of his career? Or what if he were a dubbing artist? In other words, what if we associated that iconic baritone with another actor, who’s now getting an award from… a very sporting Rekha? And what if he didn’t even have that famous last name? What if he’s called Amitabh… Sinha?
Shamitabh opens with a glitzy Bollywood party, celebrating the success of a movie named Lifebuoy. (Yes, like the soap. And there’s a hilarious reason behind that name.) We see famous people like Javed Akhtar and Ekta Kapoor being asked for sound bytes – they call Shamitabh a star, a storm. Shamitabh rocks. And then we discover that Shamitabh is this self-effacing actor, played by Dhanush. And when he begins to speak, he speaks in Bachchan’s voice. I sat up, shocked – but also smiling. What the hell? I was glad I knew nothing about the plot, and that the trailer hadn’t given anything away. This is easily one of the best surprises I’ve had at the movies.
I thought, then, that this was a south-versus-north thing, that maybe the Dhanush character – named Daanish; Shamitabh is the screen name – had faced a lot of rejection in Bollywood because he spoke Hindi with a south-Indian Hindi accent. (He was once a bus conductor. Remind you of anyone?) But that would be too low-concept for Balki. We soon slip into a flashback and discover that Daanish is mute. And he wants to become a hero. Main Amitabh Bachchan Banna Chahta Hoon.
The song Ishq fillum begins to play, and we see the reason for the lyrics, and for the rather sinister tune (delivered in a stentorian tone) for what should have been a rollicking romp of a song. The same mix of showbiz-sparkle and sinisterness is found in Ilayaraja’s trumpet riff heard throughout the film. As is obvious by now, we are being prepared for a meta-ish film about the movies, but we are also being prepared for the danger that lies ahead – in the form of bruised egos, in the form of tragedy. I wasn’t too impressed by the songs as a standalone experience, but they sound fantastic on screen. Sha sha sha mi mi mi sounds like what it’d be like to be inside Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s heads as Farhan Akhtar is giving them a story narration. Even the borderline-silly Thappad is perfect, a slick version of a Balakrishna-type song for a slick, Balakrishna-style movie being made in Bollywood.
The film, for the most part, moves like a dream. It’s about impersonation – think Mrs. Doubtfire, but without the padded bras – and it has the bounce of a Hollywood screwball comedy. It’s easy to swallow the crazy contrivances, which involve, among other things, a trip to Finland. Remember Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, where he played a director who went blind on the sets and had to pretend he wasn’t blind, so that the show would go on? Shamitabh is something like that. And just like Hollywood Ending was a making a point with its conceit – even a blind man, these days, can make a bloody Hollywood movie! – Shamitabh seems to say that, unlike the other arts, filmmaking is collaborative. The mute man needs a voice. The baritone needs a body.
There’s a bit of the Abhimaan angle here, when Amitabh begins to resent Daanish’s success. There’s a bit of the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady angle here, in the question about whether the credit for success is due to the person behind the scenes or the one in front. There’s a bit of Singin’ in the Rain here, about a star who’d have been at home in silent movies but is now forced to reckon with the reality of talkies. And there’s a bit of Balki’s Bachchan worship here, that that voice is enough. Even a mute man can become a bloody Bollywood hero if he has Bachchan’s voice! Accordingly, we have Amitabh Sinha lapsing into Kinara’s Naam gum jaayega, chehra yeh badal jaayega, meri aawaaz hi pehchaan hai... Translation: The names and faces may change, but this voice is forever.
The dialogues are snappy and fun. The situations – a sex scene with a very vocal orgasm; a song sequence about toilets; the bit about Amitabh’s fear of injections; the fact that a nobody like Daanish makes a home for himself in the vanity vans of stars – are clever. And the actors work together beautifully – Dhanush’s youth and bounce and self-belief and can-d0 enthusiasm versus Bahchchan’s boozy world-weariness. (The man’s an alcoholic.) Akshara Haasan plays a pixyish assistant director (named Akshara) with a hairstyle that resembles a curtain (or a screen? the screen?) she has to keep pushing away. The casting is on-the-ball – she looks young, unsure, way beyond her depth, all of which is the character too. You think she’s going to be the love interest but she isn’t, which is refreshing but – when you think about it – not very surprising. Daanish and Amitabh have their own can’t-live-you-can’t-live-without-you thing going. There’s probably no room for anyone else.
The momentum slips in the second half. The film begins to meander, a tad too pleased with its metaphors about whiskey and water. (After the third or so mention, I wanted to yell: Shut up!) There’s a subplot about a journalist that isn’t very convincing – and it has no real finish. I don’t think the film would have lost anything if this hadn’t been there. I didn’t care for the scene where Amitabh speaks to Robert De Niro. It’s a good idea – but it isn’t pulled off very well, and Bachchan hams here in a way he doesn’t elsewhere. I wished Amitabh’s entry into a rival camp had been detailed better – he just walks in and starts dictating terms, which the filmmaking team is only too happy to obey. (Or is there a meta reference in there as well?) And there are times Balki’s cleverness can come off as… too clever. The A-to-Z gaali scene, followed by an A-to-Z lesson about living together. Really?
But the real downer is the ending. Thinking back, this ending may be logical. After all, the signs were all there. Amitabh lives in a cemetery. His dreams are dead. He’s dead to the film industry. Akshara seems to be in perpetual mourning – she always wears black. As for Daanish, his very first attempt at acting before an audience, as a child, has him imagining the death of his mother. And that’s enough. Instead, Balki wants to recreate the climax of Punnagai Mannan (I’m guessing; given the Ilayaraja connection and the chartbuster songs, it isn’t too wild a guess), and the scene in the car goes on and on. If you want to shock us, you shouldn’t work on us so much – just make us walk into a door we never knew existed.
But then, that’s always the problem with Balki. He’s great at making these light, fluffy, funny, clever films, but he feels the need for tragic undercurrents – and he just isn’t very good with heavy drama. The little girl who dies in Cheeni Kum was fun as the film’s “cute factor”, but her death and the ensuing drama felt like another movie altogether. So too Paa – a convention-breaking film suddenly turned all melodramatic on us, with the boy wanting his parents to get married, and they begin to circle his hospital bed… It’s like reaching the centre of a chocolate cake and discovering coffee grounds. As a philosophy, there may be something existential there, but certainly not in the way these films are being made. Why not just give us the cake?
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