8 February 2015

A Star is Born: Thoughts on Shamitabh

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Balki's film is about the creation of a superstar from one man's body and another man's voice. It is disappointingly simplistic, but perhaps the cliches will eventually birth better films on the subject.

All star personas are manufactured, and all of them are, to a greater or lesser degree, distant from the flesh-and-blood human beings who strain to fill their shoes. But Shamitabh takes that fact and stretches it to the farthest point possible - the film's eponymous Bollywood superstar is actually the amalgam of two different men. 'Shamitabh' is born when the voice of Amitabh (Bachchan) is grafted on to the face and body of Daanish (Dhanush). 

The film, and the performances, are a very mixed bag. Dhanush is wonderfully persuasive as the Igatpuri-born-and-brought-up mute with a passionate fillum fetish. Meanwhile, as the bitter alcoholic layabout who also confesses to youthful ambition as an actor, Bachchan hams madly. 

As he seems to do in all his 'serious' roles in the last decade: if you've watched Black and The Last Lear, you know what to expect from his performance here. He gets to alternate his khadoos cynical act with drunken monologues in the now-classic Amitabh tradition, addressing a Mrs Gomes on a gravestone one time, and Robert De Niro on a poster the second. But they fall flat. Squashed between these two 'look-at-me' performers is poor debutante Akshara Haasan -- light-eyed and fleet-footed like her mother Sarika -- but a terribly clunky speaker. As the enthu young assistant director who decides Daanish has talent and brings her doctor father on board to help with the voice technology, Haasan has the dubious privilege of playing midwife at the birth of Shamitabh. 

Dhanush, being mute, doesn't get to speak except in the transmitted voice of Amitabh. The gadget fitted in Daanish's throat is connected to a microphone worn by Amitabh. When Amitabh speaks, if Daanish opens his mouth, the words seem to emerge from him -- in Bachchan's baritone. This is classic Hindi movie technology, with the usual need for suspension of disbelief -- such as how Amitabh can correctly predict what Daanish wants to say in unscripted conversations with others, especially when he's in another room and can't even see his face. He's only a voice artiste, not a mind-reader, after all! 

There are many other hilariously filmi things going on in this film: Daanish may need to gesticulate and speak slowly, but why does Haasan also speak like she's just learning to talk - to match him? And why does Amitabh Sinha hang out in a dirty white suit in a Christian cemetery, have a Christian grave reserved for him, and receive the nickname Robert -- is it because that's what Hindi movie drunks must do? 

But all this is clearly beside the point. This film is intended as a homage to cinema, and more specifically, to our national obsession with cinema. And so it's right that it's as filmi as they come. The first half-hour is a breezy musical tour of Daanish's film-fanatic childhood, complete with him pulling heropanti moves on his hapless teacher, and his long-suffering Hindi-movie mother feigning illness to keep the boy from running off to Mumbai. When his mother dies, he finally arrives in Mumbai, and it's time for the requisite rounds of film industry studios. With a difference -- Daanish cannot speak. As a mute, he can't even plead his case to the guards. 

But his silence, the film seems to suggest, also works like a cloak of invisibility. He enters the film industry by the back door, but right at the top -- by making himself at home in a star's vanity van. He showers and sleeps in luxury while the star isn't around, and cocks a snook at the guards by being driven into studios in secret comfort. This a sign of things to come: there is to be no struggle as a junior artiste for our hero - as soon as he has transformed himself into Shamitabh, he gets a main role straight off. Like many recent films (Happy Ending and Sulemani Keeda as recently as December 2014), Shamitabh tries to make fun of the film industry, though far too gently. There are producers producing dud star vehicles for their sons, acclaimed directors waiting for Ranbir and Hrithik's dates, and even our protagonists' "classy" movie idea -- of course, it's a love story between two mutes -- needs to draw in the "massy" elements with a dhinchak song. 

But the main idea behind Shamitabh is to make you think about how acting - and thus cinema itself - is a composite of the visual and the aural. Bachchan's character has a little rant about how "jab audio ke vajah se video chalta hai, toh usko picture kaise bol sakte hain?" "It is not picture, it is mixture!" he insists drunkenly. 

This tussle between the image and the voice, of course, had its great historical moment when film technology first moved from silent to talkies. Shamitabh doesn't go into it, and perhaps it is not the film for the job. But if the other cinemas of the world have immortalised that great moment of transformation - think of Singing in the Rain, or more recently The Artist - couldn't we have a film about the decline of the silent stars and the necessary rise of those who could enunciate Hindi dialogue? Or a film about the very real, complicated relationship between a playback singer and a star who has ridden to success on his songs? One hopes Shamitabh, clunky as it is, is only the first in a series of more such exciting explorations.

No comments: