Ten minutes into Shamitabh you’ll begin to realize you’re feeling something that seems almost alien – entertainment. You’ll be glad that, after what seems like eons, we have a mainstream commercial movie that actually attempts to render a story that’s unique and original, without the tacky underpinnings of the products from the genre. If you’re a Big B fan, the first half of Shamitabh is going to be your LSD.
Danish, a kid from a village grows up into a perfectly cast Dhanush with dreams of being an actor. Danish moves to Mumbai and stalks whichever filmmaker he spots, and begins living secretly in a Vanity Van. When he finally gets a chance to do a screen test he kills it. The only problem? He’s mute. But this is 2015, and filmmaking now has tools, like Dubbing. With these tools, even a tool can be a hero. And as the protagonist mentions, if you’ve got the vocal cords of Amitabh Bachchan, even a dog can be star. So when Danish comes across Amitabh (Big B), a washed up drunkard with a glorious baritone, the collaboration reeks of superstardom. Danish + Amitabh become Shamitabh.
Going with the theme of the film, Shamitabh is half a great movie. As you surely have guessed, there’s a ton of Meta in the film. This is a film about superstardom, starring superstars. It’s about the high of the rise and the constant threat of the fall, the jealousy, the disappointment and all the other emotional baggage that comes along with stardom. In one scene Shamitabh is shooting a movie where his heroine has to visit the loo, so he builds her a toilet out of snow and the commode becomes a romantic theme in the song. Yup Shamitabh is also an unsubtle commentary of the nature of commercial Bollywood.
The ‘conflict’ in director Balki’s previous films Cheeni Kum and Paa were ham handed to say the least, but this time we have something imaginative. As Shamitabh becomes a star, his greed starts to eat him inwards, and Amitabh, who is kept a secret, begins to wonder why he doesn’t get the lion’s share of the credit. Acting and screen presence is all about the delivery, he growls. To get you high a bottle of whiskey doesn’t need water, but water does need whiskey. Even if a whiskey bottle is 43% whiskey and 57% water. He’s a washed out alcoholic because his voice didn’t suit the industry in the 80’s, so how is it fair that someone with no screen presence becomes a star because of his voice. Neither can live without the other, and the ego clashes, the jealous bickering between the two is fun, as are Amitabh’s drunk philosophical putdowns.
It seems Balki took the dual nature of his film too seriously, because the second half of the film crashes and burns. Balki loses the drive and is unsure of what to do with the characters, so he includes some truly horrendous contrivances to pad things up.
There is also a ton of stupidity in the movie, like the eyeroll inducing Finnish sci fi technology behind getting Amitabh’s voice in Danish’s throat. Other forms of sci fi include a random Assistant Director (an awkward Akshara Haasan) suddenly rescuing Danish from being thrown out of film city for stalking, putting him on a screen test, sending him to Finland, and convincing her director to cast him in his film as the star. Talk about luck by chance. There’s also an unintentionally hilarious subplot of a tabloid reporter who realizes the discrepancy in Shamitabh’s voice and travels to Finland as an investigative reporter and then blackmails Shamitabh. Not to mention the hundred thousand product placements crammed into nearly every frame of the film.
If you were disappointed by the endings of Paa and Cheeni Kum, prepare to face something similar. During the closing minutes it becomes clear that Balki doesn’t know what point to make, so he just abruptly gives up and the credits roll, leaving you with a mixed bag of emotions.
Fortunately you’ll still remember the one thing that kept the film going – Bachchan’s performance. Such style and elegance is seldom seen in cinema. Even when he’s lying in the dirt, blabbering with a sozzled face, he’s a class act. And it’s great to see him play a character instead of his own French bearded self. Amitabh points out that he’s the larger part of the name Shamitabh, and Big B is pretty much the only significant and memorable part of the film. This might as well have been called ShaMetabh.
(First published in Firstpost)