Shamitabh **Dir: R. Balki. With: Amitabh Bachchan, Dhanush, Akshara Haasan. 153 mins. Cert: 12A
The Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan has been universally recognised as a voice of authority for some time now: it’s why Baz Luhrmann cast him as Jewish gangster Meyer Wolfsheim in his Gatsby redo. Back home, however, Bachchan has partnered with writer-director R. Balki for a trio of films examining the pitfalls of ageing. After 2007’s crowdpleasing May-to-December romance Cheeni Kum and 2009’s peculiar Benjamin Button variant Paa, the new release Shamitabh forms the pair’s most self-reflexive endeavour yet: a movieland tale that finds Bachchan playing a former performer whose voice soars over his drastically reduced circumstances.
The Frankensteinian title bolts together the names of both the lead characters, and the actors who play them. Danish (Dhanush) is a movie-obsessed mute who sets out from his small village to Mumbai in the hope of becoming a matinee idol. Discovered by ambitious assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan) while hiding out in a trailer, he’s soon whisked off to a Finnish laryngotomy clinic – you’ll just have to go with this – and fitted with an electronic device that allows others to speak in his place: where Bollywood stars have traditionally lip-synched to pre-recorded songs, our boy will do all that and the dialogue.
Danish and Akshaara stumble upon an unlikely candidate to provide these words: Amitabh (Bachchan), an alcoholic itinerant renting space in a graveyard – the symbolism is clear – who rather resembles erstwhile Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, if someone had thought to drag him through a hedge backwards. A failed leading man whose basso profondo was deemed more suitable for villains than heroes, Amitabh can’t resist the idea of getting one over on the industry that rejected him; a promise of 10% of all future profits seals the deal, and thus is the legend of Shamitabh – desirable face, voice of an undesirable – born.
The tone is affectionate enough for several prominent Bollywood directors to happily cameo as unwitting dupes, but there are glimpses of a far less forgiving satire on this industry’s credulousness – a satire engineered by a director-star pairing who’ve surely seen their fair share of phonies and fakers come and go. Here, producers incur “numerology issues” during casting, and one nice slowburn gag reveals just how Shamitabh’s more than faintly preposterous-looking action flick “Lifebuoy” got its title; the whole plot, indeed, relies on us buying that Bollywood could go gaga for a guy with a pretty face but nothing to say for himself.
The shame is that Shamitabh just can’t hold to a coherent line. Balki keeps muffling his most compelling ideas: the notion that the increasingly resentful Amitabh might eventually withdraw his consent by keeping schtum as the cameras roll is floated in one scene, and then forgotten about the next. Having recruited Bachchan with the apparent aim of making a statement, Balki instead settles for taking silly, scattershot snipes: spoof musical number “A Piddly Thing”, for example, extends beyond comic breaking point the idea a heroine might want to relieve herself while twirling around on a mountaintop.
“Too classy, not massy” is the post-production warning Haasan’s AD mouths at one point, and Shamitabh veers erratically towards the latter option, losing its thread repeatedly between hours two and three while in pursuit of some new, generally lower-brow effect. A tighter edit might have usefully redacted the demeaning scene in which Bachchan is obliged to provide coital grunts to soundtrack his vessel’s bedroom activity, and the incessant product-placement for a certain tax-intolerant online retailer; it might also have given Balki time to come up with a better ending than the flatly blunt one he arrives at here.
Bachchan remains a heavyweight presence when he’s allowed to be, and he sets about one scene, drunkenly berating a bus-side photo of Robert de Niro, as though this material were Shakespeare. It’s not, but the encounter does represent something else: a communion between screen legends whose recent choices have too often felt like cries for help. Somewhere in Shamitabh, there lurks a veteran performer’s fear of losing his voice in a marketplace where one has to shout ever louder to be noticed – and that’s fascinating; what’s frustrating is that the vehicle through which he’s chosen to express this fear should be such an unfocused, truly piddly thing.
Shamitabh is now playing in cinemas nationwide.