Shamitabh gives more face to the voice and less voice to the face

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.02.15

R. Balki and his clever ideas. A Cheeni Kum love story between a 64-year-old and a 34-year-old. Abhishek Bachchan as the Paa of Amitabh Bachchan. And now Dhanush + Amitabh = Shamitabh. Just that the premise of a borrowed voice creating a star out of someone goes as far back as 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain with the piddly si idea having been used even by an Anjan Chowdhury more than 28 years back in Gurudakshina. 
Adman-turned-filmmaker Balki, of course, thinks beyond the script with his ideas feeding Bachchan the star. So, when the borrowed voice is the country’s best baritone and the incredible Dhanush is rendered mute to let loose his physical acting, Shamitabh sounds and looks smashing. But just like his first film, there’s too little sugar left for the second half, when the idea has been milked enough. 

Shamitabh starts off gloriously, though, with Daanish (Dhanush) growing up in Igatpuri wanting to be an actor. It’s like an untameable beast inside him, as he watches every movie playing in the only single screen in town and then raiding the neighbourhood video library. He mimics everyone from Brando’s Corleone to Ledger’s Joker and eyes the bus going to Mumbai every single day. There’s only one small problem: he can’t speak. 

Once Daanish lands up in the studios and on the floors of B-town and starts hiding –– and living –– in vanity vans, assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan) spots the actor in him and tries to devise ways to find the mute-off button. Now since it’s Balki and it’s 2015, it can’t just be about finding a dubbing artiste for Dhanush, even though many movies in Bollywood are still dubbed in post-production. 

We are briefed about a certain live voice transfer technology, only done in Finland, where a microchip in the throat of the mute man can replicate sounds made by another person within a radius of 400 metres wirelessly. Google, of course, returned no results for such a search. Anyway, once Daanish gets that planted in his voice box, it’s just a matter of bumping into Amitabh Sinha (Bachchan), a man who had come to Mumbai 40 years back to become an actor and is now a drunk living in the graveyard. And voila, we have Shamitabh, the next big thing in tinseltown. 

Amitabh is turned into the star’s valet and he is always around, not just to mouth lines from the script of the film he is shooting but also for regular conversations with the film industry folks and even for interviews and press conferences. Don’t ask how Daanish is live-syncing what he is being told in the ear instantly. They even sing a song in this arrangement. Yes, Gurudakshina style!

Now, when success has two fathers, it turns out to be a problem kid. Not so happy with Daanish being acclaimed everywhere and him hiding backstage during every applause –– remember The Prestige? –– Amitabh starts getting pricey. “Yeh aawaz ek kutte ke munh se bhi achha lagega!” Daanish, on the other hand, is like a reincarnation of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”

And it is here that not just Shamitabh the star but Shamitabh the film starts stalling. The importance of both elements –– Daanish’s expressions and Amitabh’s voice –– in creating the perfect star cocktail is reiterated over and over again, using a million metaphors like whisky and water, laash and kaandha, and SIM card and mobile. The last hour of the film is an inglorious and unending trudge even as a last-minute twist tries to salvage proceedings. 
There are many cameos from prominent film producers and directors and technicians, giving a touch of authenticity to the narrative. And also a lot of intertextuality with real-life stories and legends. Like Daanish is shown as a bus conductor, how Rajinikanth actually was. But nothing is more fun than watching Rekha give an award to Shamitabh and then being pleasantly surprised hearing the bass behind the face! 

Dhanush, who was a revelation in Raanjhana, is terrific here. In spirit with some of the great silent movie stars of the past, he brings on board a beautiful blend of muted and loud acting. Besides the hungry desperate aspirant avatar, there’s also a deceptive arrogance about him, which he uses effectively when Shamitabh becomes a phenomenon in the film. 

Balki always looks at Bachchan through the eyes of a fanboy. So it’s a larger-than-life big-and-broad performance from the Big B, replete with a dozen drunken scenes. You love him in quite a few sequences but also find him way over the top in others. A rare ‘whisky’ as always, but extra matured in way too many casks. Maybe that’s why there’s no ‘water’ trickling down cheeks in the theatre when the biggest scene arrives in the end. 

Akshara makes a confident debut, quite unfazed by all the star quotient around her. P.C. Sreeram shoots the film like only P.C. Sreeram can. And it’s always a good time to hear the signature strings of Ilaiyaraja. 

Sometimes directors are so much in love with their ideas, they keep stretching them without realising how much steam the concepts actually have. And Shamitabh’s steam runs out way before the credits roll. Perhaps because Balki chose to give more face to the voice and less voice to the face. 

Pratim D. Gupta
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