Like his previous films Cheeni Kum and Paa, director R Balki’s Shamitabh is constructed around a terrific, refreshingly original premise. A superstar is born when a talented but mute struggling actor (Dhanush) ‘borrows’ the booming baritone of an ageing alcoholic drifter (Amitabh Bachchan). Balki skillfully blends wildly disparate ideas to give us a film that is in equal parts a drama about partnership and ego, and a cheeky insider look at Bollywood. However, like his earlier films, this one too is high on concept, short on story, and plain indulgent in its second half.
The film opens nicely with a charming flashback that introduces us to our protagonist Daanish, a poor boy in Igatpuri, who is mad about the movies. Unfazed by the fact that he cannot speak, he dreams of becoming an actor someday, until then happily putting on impromptu performances for anyone who’ll watch. In a clever scene early on in the film, the little tyke has to be literally torn off a mean-spirited teacher who he attacks while pretending to be deep in character.
The first half hour of Shamitabh works as an affectionate postcard to the movies as Balki communicates our hero’s unending fascination for films through striking sequences. We watch as a now grown up Daanish trades his mother’s piping hot bhajiyaas for entry into a local video parlor; as he stuffs his mouth with cotton to imitate Marlon Brando’s mumbled delivery after watching The Godfather, and paints his face white to ape Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight.
It’s this very passion – and his unmistakable potential – that catches the eye of assistant director Akshara (debutant Akshara Haasan) when he’s staking out film studios in Mumbai and hiding in vanity vans hoping to catch a break. Conveniently she hooks him up with a breakthrough technology that will allow our protagonist to speak. All you need to invest is a willing suspension of disbelief. All Daanish and Akshara need now is a willing voice.
Which brings us to Bachchan’s character, Amitabh Sinha, a cranky all-round failure and compulsive drunk who hangs around and lives in a cemetery. The old man reluctantly agrees to become Daanish’s personal valet so he can ‘give’ him his voice without anyone suspecting. This conceit lends itself to some entertaining scenarios where the pair struggles to make their ‘arrangement’ work. His talent, propped up by that formidable voice, makes the young man – now rechristened Shamitabh – an overnight star after his very first film. More offers follow, as do magazine covers, and coveted awards – including one that’s presented by a female legend making a tiny but memorable cameo. (Her reaction alone on hearing that voice is priceless.)
Balki brings conflict into this seemingly perfect set-up through the ever-reliable device of ego. As Shamitabh’s star rises rapidly, the actor and the ‘voice’ clash repeatedly, each insistent that he is the true talent. Bachchan’s character shrewdly makes his point by humiliating the actor in smartly scripted scenes, like one in which he refuses to say yes to a script that Shamitabh likes but he doesn’t. “Kalakaar main bhi hoon,” he tells the actor, now insisting that he must have script approval too.
Ironically, Balki’s own script runs out of steam post-intermission, quickly repeating the same ideas over and over again, and throwing new ones that don’t always work. A song titled Piddly, involving the recurring appearance of a toilet seat, is a clever concept but stretched too far till it begins to feel indulgent. The same can be said for Bachchan’s multiple drunk scenes that get tiring after a point. It’s true also of the whisky-and-water analogy that is overused in the film. A bedroom scene with suggestive dialogue about the difference in the two men’s age and virility feels tacked on purely for shock value. Another scene in which Bachchan’s character gets into trouble with the London police for vandalizing a bus comes off as contrived. Bachchan, however, completely nails it in a following sequence where he verbally attacks Dhanush’s character in an airport restroom after taking an intense beating.
The writing by now has become increasingly simplistic, especially evident in a clunky track intended to illustrate that both the actor and the voice can’t succeed independently. The innumerable instances of product placement stick out awkwardly, and basic logic fast goes out of the window. I found myself tired and not particularly moved at the end of 2 hours and 30 minutes when Balki whipped out the same manipulative tool that he employed in Cheeni Kum and Paa too.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Shamitabh. Brimming with smart ideas and powered by the performances of its two principals, it’s a shame this promising film comes undone by the Curse of the Second Half. Watch it though, for it bravely treads new ground.