If you’ve watched, oh, maybe half a Bollywood film in your lifetime, you must know that leaving rationale at the door is probably vital in order to fully indulge in the experience. Director R. Balki knows you know that. And in his latest “Shamitabh,” he pushes your willingness to forgive glaring implausibility to lengths that are at once gutsy yet aggravating in their unlikelihood and ultimately, too flimsy to sustain solid interest.
Daanish (Dhanush) is a small-town bus conductor with unabashed dreams to make it in films—except that he’s a mute, and unable to pique the attention of anyone notable in the big city. When a particularly receptive assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan), picks up on his potential, she makes it her mission to help him, whisking him to Finland for a miracle in which an implant in his throat will enable him to speak via a hand-picked surrogate.
His voice of choice? Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan), a scraggly, bedraggled drunkard with a burning baritone that flows like molten. A failed actor in his time, Amitabh grudgingly agrees to the unusual partnership. Daanish, now armed with a voice to go along with his talent (along with a new moniker that nods to the secret pairing), quickly becomes a national sensation, but before long, resentment brews as Amitabh begins to claim responsibility for “Shamitabh’s” success.
As far as cinematic license goes, “Shamitabh” is decidedly high maintenance; asking us to buy into the voice technology and Daanish’s speedy accustomization to it, to allow that Daanish can have a burgeoning career that dodges any suspicion whatsoever of his silence off-camera, to go along with Bachchan’s iconic voice paired with another face, the film constantly relies on our willingness to suspend belief.
Surprisingly, until about halfway through, being made to go along with all of it isn’t completely offensive, because it actually makes for rather entertaining viewing, with moments of cleverness in spite of its loopholes. Sprinkled with memorable lines and re-enactments of vintage films, Balki is unashamed to showcase his love for Bollywood classics—and yet, he’s equally unafraid to make not-so-subtle digs at industry practices, whether it’s producers’ excessive adherence to numerology, stars selling out to endorsement deals, or the questionable credibility of awards ceremonies.
Longtime celebrity gossips will get a kick out of a particular scene in which Rekha presents a statuette to Shamitabh, and those familiar with Bachchan’s own past struggles of breaking into showbiz will recognize similarities between the histories of the actor and his character.
Much of the defiance of rationale can be justified by the Balki’s intentions to go more radical than run-of-the-mill, experimenting with spontaneous song treatments and flashbacks, and generally aiming for a more avant-garde feel than most things coming out of Bollywood these days (which alone is a much-appreciated attempt). Moreover, as a battle of egos begins to break out between Daanish and Amitabh right before intermission, thought-provoking questions emerge as to what truly makes a star; is Shamitabh a success by looks or by voice? Which half of the duo is truly responsible for the talent, and who should take the credit?
But just when you start looking forward to equally satisfying payoffs for the promising setup, “Shamitabh” begins to lose grip. Unaware of how or when to reign it in, Balki’s creatively carved structure begins to crumble as musical numbers that were initially funny become foolish, conflicts get cartoonish, and there is increasing confusion as to whether he wants his movie to be a romance, a buddy film, or an ironic commentary.
The striking pairing of Bachchan’s booming, larger-than-life voice with Dhanush’s lanky, wide-eyed innocence had potential to be unexpectedly effective, but the rapport between the lanky Dhanush and Bachchan is iffy and the duo doesn’t quite lure us in. More disorienting still is Balki’s shift in focus from their joint rivalry to Amitabh’s emotional distress. Largely ditching Daanish’s side of the story, the film becomes a drawn-out display of Amitabh’s monologues, tirades, and breakdowns, proving even that legendary voice can get draining as it keeps up a constant stream of one-sided dialogue.
For all the dubious believability of its very premise, this was one film that could just have gotten away with it on the basis of its tongue-in-cheek humor, keenly self-aware sensibility, and more than capable actors. But as it turns out, a single entity—be it a voice, a face, or a vision—is insufficient without a stronger grip on execution. At the end, the disconnect between theory and practice here is simply too wide, leaving “Shamitabh” struggling to make resonating impact.