This just in: Amitabh Bachchan, an actor some of you might have heard of, has a pretty good voice.
What? Not exactly breaking news? Yet director R Balki seems newly aware of that revelation, and, it appears, believes that mere worship of the Big B-aritone is enough to make for a fine film. An ode to that voice might have made sense in the 70s, before the Bachchan voice was absolutely everywhere, mimicked by anyone, used to sell us anything. The radio stations who rejected Amitabh Bachchan have become as legendary in their infamy as the record producers who first passed on The Beatles; that voice has literally launched careers; and, even today, over 40 years since we first heard it, it overwhelms — in fact, as evidenced by the televised reaction of unsuspecting citizens across the country when they receive a gameshow phone-call that starts with that silken-yet-growled Hello, it strikes like lightning.
To dedicate a whole film to applauding that voice, then, seems like a stretch… but then Balki, despite ingenuity and quirks, always ends up tugging at initially inventive ideas till they feel like week-old bubblegum. Shamitabh, a film where a mute actor is voiced by an older actor, sets up the premise so completely and obviously with the opening scene that it’s hard not to wonder where the film will go over the remaining 150 minutes. The answer: it meanders on and on, like an old man lost in a car park. Bachchan is excellent, Dhanush does well, but both are straitjacketed by a flimsy, uneven story that is eventually just exhausting.
It starts off with promise. Dhanush plays Danish, a village boy fathered by the movies, a mute boy who believes he can act better than the biggest superstar, who turns his head at 48-frames-per-second, and is passionate enough to believe his voicelessness won’t get in the way of his impending stardom. Starting off as a bus conductor (just like another superstar you may have heard of) he makes his way to big bad Bombay, impresses an assistant director, and is then whisked off to Finland.
It is at this point that I decided Balki was giving us not a film aiming at truth but a preposterous fable, because his Finland is a ventriloquist-worshipping country dedicated to making state-of-the-art human puppets, fitting voice-boxes inside human throats and letting the mute person lip-sync someone else’s time-delayed conversation. It’s awful writing, immediately removing the “How?” struggle from the equation; in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending, when a blind director tries to direct a film without anyone knowing he’s blind, the results are hilarious because he’s trying to find on-set help, memorising floor-plans, and so on. Here we see Dhanush speaking in the Bachchan baritone and when we wonder how it’s come about, we’re told simply that the filmmaker wanted to make it happen.
Add to that a drunken mentor — Bachchan, as an old drunkard hired to voice Danish — and the first half of Shamitabh is basically Nagesh Kukunoor’s Iqbal with a lot less heart and a lot more indulgence. It’s tiresome, poorly shot, suffering from an atrociously patchy sound-design and inconsistent dubbing, and — despite an an energetic Dhanush, and Bachchan revelling in his self-aggrandizing role, painfully armed with ‘look-how-great-my-voice-is’ lines designed to elicit taalis — the film never quite gets going. And that’s the good bit. Following intermission, it careens off the rails so catastrophically it feels an uncredited Bhandarkar/Bhansali lent the writing team a hand.
Dhanush is a highly effective actor (and when miming actors, his shorthand from Hrithik to Ranbir is particularly brilliant), but Balki, keen to keep the focus on The Baritone, doesn’t show us any of Danish’s skills; his audition is ordinary, his histrionics mediocre, with the point underscored by Bachchan repeatedly telling him that he doesn’t look good, and (in a particularly distasteful line) that The Baritone is enough to make even a dog shine on screen. Danish’s part is a thankless one, that of an ambitious, opportunistic jerk who never cares for those around him, while Bachchan is given everything from the idiosyncratic life to longwinded Scotch-and-water soliloquys to a horrible face-off with a Robert De Niro poster. All that and, like Captain Haddock, he can curse in every letter of the alphabet. It’s a depressingly one-sided match. (Somewhere in the middle is a frustrated, interesting yet occasionally too-loud Akshara Haasan, perhaps thinking wistfully about the time her dad Kamal did a silent film…)
What Balki subverts truly cleverly, though, as an ad-man, are his advertisers: there’s a whole lot of product placement here — Lifebuoy, Amazon, Seven Hills — but each brand is mocked: the soap’s tagline is ridiculed, the online-retailer doesn’t have the books they need, and the hospital only holds bad news. In a way, also, this film can be considered a commentary on the unfair, unbelievable omnipotence of the superstar in Hindi cinema: he chooses the project, the story, the director, the co-star, and even decides how to shoot the song.
Or maybe Balki’s okay with all that. Just like he’s okay with taking a clever Rekha cameo that should have been a sly moment and stretching it into a long, wordy, needlessly dramatic scene. That, in essence, is the problem with Shamitabh: it spends all its time explaining its own jokes. And that never sounds right, no matter the voice.
Rating: 1.5 stars
First published Rediff, February 6, 2015