Shamitabh is the third film featuring Amitabh Bachchan from writer/director R. Balki and it’s definitely my pick of the three. I may however be somewhat biased, given that this film also stars my favourite Tamil actor Dhanush, who never fails to impress with his performance and delivers yet again in Shamitabh. I’ve found that while Balki’s previous two films Cheeni Kum and Paa have clever and overall engaging ideas, the execution doesn’t always live up to expectations. And to a lesser extent it’s the same with Shamitabh, although here there is more hit than miss and the film succeeds in humorously poking fun at a number of different aspects of the film industry. There are a few too many contrivances to make the plot really gel and the dodgy medical science is a drawback, but the central theme of two warring egos against the backdrop of the superficial and glamorous world of Bollywood is compelling enough to ensure an entertaining watch.
The film opens with a success event for début actor Shamitabh (Dhanush), and the impact on the room of invited guests is much the same as for the film audience when Dhanush opens his mouth and the voice of Amitabh Bachchan rolls out. The contrast could not be greater and it’s this combination of actor and voice that has made Shamitabh such a success in his first film. But before the phenomenon that is Shamitabh there was Daanish, a mute boy so obsessed with films that he dreamt of running away to Mumbai to be a hero. I don’t know who the young actor is who plays the young Daanish but he is absolutely brilliant, particularly when his exasperated teacher makes him act in front of the class. The anguish in his portrayal of despair at the supposed death of his mother is incredible and from that point it does seem possible that perhaps Daanish could be a hero despite his lack of a voice. However once he grows up and does make it to Mumbai, it’s evident that no matter how good an actor Daanish is, he will never be able to make it into the film industry without a voice.
Enter a young and ambitious AD Akshara (Akshara Haasan) who is impressed by the aspiring actor and decides to try and help him gain his dream. There is a wonderful irony in the rejection of an actor because he cannot speak in an industry that relies heavily on dubbing, which is of course the whole point. In one of those plot contrivances, Akshara’s father is a doctor whose laryngologist friend just happens to have heard about revolutionary new surgery in Finland. Somehow Akshara convinces her father to send Daanish for the surgery, which involves implanting a device in his throat which can store and then play back someone else’s speaking voice. As Bollywood medicine goes it isn’t the most ridiculous I’ve seen, but it’s certainly close and it’s probably best not to dwell on the lack of logic or the major holes with the technology and just go with it for the sake of the plot.
Naturally then, given the choice of absolutely anyone who could become his ‘voice’, Daanish decides to go with an older alcoholic who doesn’t look as if he will make it to the interval before succumbing to liver failure, let alone the entire career span of a young and upcoming actor. Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) came to Mumbai years before with a similar dream of being a hero, but was rejected because of his deep and powerful voice, ending up in the gutter where Daanish and Akshara find him. Despite his shabby and homeless appearance Amitabh lives in a graveyard, symbolism definitely intended, and doesn’t take too much persuading to sign up as the voice of Daanish. The idea is that he will in some way get his own back on the industry that denied him a chance at success, although he settles for a small proportion of Daanish’s earnings and the position of valet to hide his real occupation.
The composite of Daanish and Amitabh as ‘Shamitabh’ (a necessary change to deal with numerology issues) is instantly successful and Balki throws in plenty more digs at Bollywood clichés including product placement (the film is called Lifebuoy) and the inevitable romantic song. These, along with camero appearances by the likes of Rekha and Karan Johar keep the audience smiling despite the underlying tension and hostility between the ‘actor’ and his ‘voice’.
The relationship between Daanish and Amitabh is not a happy one, as Daanish struggles to deal with his unpredictable partner and Amitabh becomes ever more resentful of the fame and recognition heaped on Daanish. Daanish for his part is determined to prove that his charisma and acting skill is enough and the voice irrelevant, while Amitabh strives to prove that without his voice Daanish would be nothing. Akshara is forced to be the mediator in the middle, a role she neither wants nor fully accepts which leads to further tension and discord.
Amitabh has a tendency to ham it up as the gruff and grumpy alcoholic, particularly when he is the main focus of a scene, but he is excellent in his interactions with Dhanush and their mutual enmity boils off the screen when they face off against each other. Dhanush is as amazing as ever in a role where he never speaks but still conveys frustration at his predicament or excitement with his success with consummate ease. The two actors work well together and their relationship is perfectly nuanced as they battle it out despite the occasionally forced and laboured storyline.
Akshara Haasan is also good and holds her own beside two such good performances from Dhanush and Amitabh. She has her own obsession and I like the way her character holds true to this dream, refusing to be merely the bridge to success for Shamitabh or even worse just a passing love interest. Her character is more interesting than that and Akshara is impressively successful in bringing her ambitious assistant director to life.
Although the relationship between the two men is well captured some of the story veers into ridiculous a little too often. I don’t understand the Bollywood obsession with toilet humour, and here Balki adds so much bathroom based comedy that I can’t be sure if he’s being satirical or whether he does actually think this is funny. Some of it works, but like Amitabh’s continual references to whiskey and water as similes for himself and Daanish, it does wear thin after a while.
Although the first half is excellent, the film falters towards the end, with the climax in particular being drawn out and almost clumsy in execution. By the end, neither Amitabh nor Daanish are particularly likeable as the success of their composite Shamitabh brings out their worst qualities, so it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight, although the relationship itself is fascinating as it self destructs. However the rest of the film more than makes up for the clunky end, and the excellent performances from the three main leads ensure that the good idea of the story isn’t lost somewhere behind the dodgy medicine. Worth watching for a satirical look at the Bollywood film industry and an unusual relationship that is cleverly drawn and intelligently developed despite the manipulations required to start it in the first place. 3 ½ stars.