Movie Review: Shamitabh
What works for the film, and what does not. Read Lekha Menon's verdict
Director: R Balki
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan’s voice, Dhanush, Akshara Haasan
Rating: 2.5 stars
Let’s begin with a confession. The first thing I did after watching Shamitabh is google ‘Live Voice Transfer Technology’. There is some odd-sounding, hard-to-pronounce scientific mumbo-jumbo to describe it as well but in simple, aam aadmi language, it means: a techno gizmo that enables one man to lend his baritone voice to a mute enabling the latter to speak in a…well…baritone voice. Google didn’t have any concrete answers, so if any well-meaning speech-voice expert is willing to explain such a marvel, I’d be glad to be educated.
Now, why would a Hindi film prompt you to look up the complex technology? Because, dear readers, that is what lends the basic premise to Shamitabh - one man’s incredible voice inhabiting another man’s incredible persona. Of a battle of egos between the voice and the body. Who or what is important - the voice or the face, especially if each quality belongs to two different individuals? Can one survive without the other?
On paper, this sounds supremely exciting. The philosophical and the metaphorical questions such a scenario raises is also quite fascinating. But problem is, Shamitabh is neither a searing insight into an actor’s ego (think the recent Birdman) nor is it a mindboggling treatise on the magic of science (like, say, an Inception). It is, to put it bluntly, an exercise to showcase the amazing talent of an eternal superstar, Amitabh Bachchan. The legend, as always, gives us a reason to accept the unbelievable. But to love Amitabh…oops, Shamitabh, you have to suspend a lot of disbelief (not a difficult task considering we suspend, dismiss and kick out disbelief, common sense and a lot of other things watching most Hindi films).
Shamitabh is set in the film industry where a film-crazy, mute young man from the interiors of Mahrashtra (represented by state transport buses and vada pavs), Daanish (Dhanush) comes to Mumbai to try his luck. And boy isn’t he lucky! Unlike other strugglers who sleep on pavements or go on endless rounds of Film City, Daanish, in a matter of minutes, gets a guardian angel – a kind, young girl named Akshara (Akshara Haasan), luckily, an assistant director who gets impressed by his intensity. Before you ask, 'Why this Kolaveri?', Daanish signs a film titled…no kidding… Lifebuoy! But since a mute man can’t be a hero, they need a voice. Kind girl and angry-for-no-reason hero find that voice in Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) a shabbily dressed drunk in a terrible wig living in a graveyard. After a bit of convincing, Amitabh agrees to be the voice behind the sensation that Daanish (now rechristened Shamitabh), turns out to be. Things go swimmingly well with the one-film old actor receiving acclaim, five-star reviews, magazine covers and a Rs10-crore cheque (!!!?). However, ego comes into play thereafter. The voice thinks the face can’t do without him and vice-versa. What happens next is predictable.
The scenes between Shamitabh and Amitabh, their ego battles, their mutual banter are the highlights of the movie. There are some sweet touches too like the scene when Amitabh rattles off the dialogues of Mughal-e-Azam to a confused Dhanush. “Technology ko Mughal-e-Azam ka dialogue pasand nahi?" he asks, deadpan. Or the time when a character questions after the pair splits, “Bina SIM card ke mobile kaise chalaoon?” Other plus points include PC Sreeram’s spiffy camerawork and Illaiyaraja’s (bless him!) lovely musical score. The Piddly song is still playing in my mind despite its ghastly context.
So what does not work? Basically, Shamitabh is an indulgent ode to the legend of Amitabh Bachchan. For a film set in Bollywood, there is hardly any depth to the industry it seeks to critique nor is there a peek into the complex minds of actors who often find success in another’s voice (through playback singing and dubbing, for instance). The director replaces nuances with Bachchanisms – monologues, deep gazes and the baritone voice, which has been given dolby treatment. In one scene, a reference to Big B’s rejection at AIR is also made! Dhanush, meanwhile, gets to pay obeisance to his famous father-in-law Rajinikanth, be it through a scene showing him as a bus conductor or having him flick his cigarette, Rajini style.
The logical loopholes are too many to overlook. Who exactly is Amitabh Sinha, and why does he live in a graveyard? Don’t ask. Why does a young ambitious girl like Akshara take on a struggling actor and presumably pay all his bills? Don’t ask. How come NO one in the industry gets suspicious that Shamitabh cannot speak, including an actress who sleeps with him? Come on, you can’t hide your muteness in the bedroom by just playing the TV loud! Don’t ask. Finally, why can’t products be placed more intelligently? From Lifebuoy to Knorr to Videocon, Bombay Dyeing and Seven Hills Hospital, the film is a brand-fest. Don’t ask.
Ultimately Shamitabh remains a showcase of two fine talents aside from Amitabh Bachchan. Dhanush is fantastic as ever. Be it pain, ego, arrogance or lust, it reflects beautifully on his translucent face. Akshara Haasan is a revelation. Her schoolgirl innocence belies her confidence and despite some inconsistencies in dialogue delivery, she has done a wonderful job.
Shamitabh is a good watch, no doubt. But why is it that a fantastic idea is rarely translated into a stimulating cinematic experience? Why do our films have to be about off-screen personalities and not on-screen characters? Don’t ask.