R. Balki is a little obsessed with symbology and metaphors in his new film, Shamitabh. He dresses Akshara Haasan – making her debut – always in black. He wants so much black there that in a number of scenes he isn’t even interested in showing her full face. Her black hair keeps obstructing that too. But it’s her character that neutralizes the mad energy from the film’s two leading men – Daanish (Dhanush) and Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) – and for all that negative energy, she can’t help but be black. There is an ego tussle between them and they exchange enough blows for you to lose track of who’s on top. Akshara playing Akshara plays all of this straight and she’s quite raw. The awkward performance works because it’s the two male stars that need to shine here. More importantly, Balki’s muse.
Has any other director crafted as many love letters to a male super star as Balki has to Amitabh Bachchan? It’s like he wants to relive the angry young man era all over again and nothing – not even Bachchan’s age – can stop him. He started off with a love story, made Bachchan a young kid in his second film and now he’s come a full circle with a movie celebrating the angry old man and his baritone voice. And Bachchan’s Amitabh Sinha is an angry old cynical man with ego as booming as his voice. But he’s dead man walking with no career to speak of and naturally lives in a graveyard. The graveyard also functions as a prop for the numinous quality of the Bachchan persona that Balki wants to showcase. The real Amitabh Bachchan did begin his film career as a voice narrator and Daanish is looking for that voice to begin his. He chances upon Amitabh the same way he chances upon Akshara which is probably a commentary on how you do need a truck load of luck to make it into the film industry – even if you are Amitabh Bachchan.
The first half is funny and quirky with Daanish and Amitabh learning to work with each other and Akshara being the only sane negotiator in between. Having unabashedly named the character Amitabh, Balki doesn’t feel the need to bring in anymore Bachchan film references. Even when he has to air his sentiment to Daanish, he belts out a Jeetendra/Dharmendra song – Naam Gum Jayega where the line that matters is left out – ‘meri awaaz hi pehchan hai….gar yaad rahe’. Dhanush and Bachchan play off each other so well and it’s by far the only selling point of the film. One of the gravest issues with Shamitabh is that outside of the three main characters, almost everyone including the world of film industry is a caricature. It’s understandable if Balki doesn’t want to flesh out what makes Daanish the star he is but the people around him – the directors, the journalist, his well wishers or his movies – are so one dimensional.
The other problem is Balki spoon feeding his every concept. He has to repeat his whiskey-water analogy throughout the film. He feels the need to flesh out the whole graveyard shift detail in words. He wants a conversation about Akshara’s black attire. There is an exhausting scene in the final stages with Akshara playing kindergarten teacher to the two men that is embalmed with a self-awareness that doesn’t help as much as Balki would have liked. And you know Balki has lost the plot when he resolves it in the most easiest of ways. It has its highlight with Amitabh being the compulsive alcoholic and Daanish paying the price for it but the whole thing still comes off as a hack job.
Be it the well built premise in the first half or the noisy, cluttered writing in the second half, it is the other muse of Balki that stands out. Ilaiyaraaja’s songs are not exactly put to great use – even the energetic Stereophonic Sannata is abruptly cut short. But the background score is different silent beast. The two actors overwhelm most things throughout the film but when there is silence in the end with one towering muse, he has only Raaja for accompaniment. While three is almost always a crowd, here it makes for great company.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)