Sunday, February 8, 2015

Shamitabh: Two for the Price of One.



You see the whole country of the system is juxtapositioned by the hemoglobin in the atmosphere because you are a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity!

“My name is Anthony Gonsalves…” (Really?!) I have to admit when Amitabh was set up to deliver an off-the-cuff line of filmi dialouge, I was hoping it would be this one from Amar Akbar Anthony. A bit of sophisticated rhetoric from another era.

Much like the portmanteau of “Daanish” and “Amitabh” that form the title of the film, Shamitabh itself is a portmanteau of disparate ideas that eventually gel into a single story. Dhanush plays a young striver (“Daanish”) determined to become an actor by any means possible. He has the talent, he has the drive, unfortunately he doesn’t have the voice. Or a voice. His vocal chords have been paralyzed from birth and he cannot speak. Amitabh plays a washed up old drunk (“Amitabh”) who has a voice, a wonderful voice, but nothing else. Amitabh literally lives in a graveyard (of his broken dreams) and spends his days in a whiskey-induced stupor.

Daanish gets an implant in his throat that can make it appear as if he himself is speaking in real time--but the catch is that somebody else must really be doing the talking. Amitabh and Daanish combine their talents to form “Shamitabh,” an actor with the body of Daanish and the voice of Amitabh. With talent like that, obviously Shamitabh becomes an overnight sensation.

But there is trouble in Film City, Daanish starts to develop a big ego and begins to think that he is the more important part of the partnership. Amitabh feels that his contribution to Shamitabh is underappreciated and grows resentful. They fight and go their separate ways. Can Daanish be successful as an actor without a voice? Can Amitabh create something from nothing, merely by using his sonorous bass? Will Shamitabh once again stride across the silver screen and deliver a killer punch line?

Shamitabh is the story of this partnership between Daanish and Amitabh, an eager youngster and a bitter veteran, a physical actor and one whose talents are in his voice. And it’s also a look into where Bollywood is today. The film is packed with incisive observations on Bollywood, whether it’s the producer attempting to launch his “corpse-faced” son as a hero (we can all think of examples) or the extremely unfortunate trend of the market segregation into boring “class cinema” and soulless “mass entertainment.” And, perhaps most enjoyably, it’s also a showcase for a pair of truly phenomenal actors (with the addition of one scene from a very talented child actor as young Daanish).

Amitabh is brilliant as Amitabh. That should not come as a surprise to anybody. (And if it does, why are you reading my blog?) His physicality, especially because he was playing the “voice,” was really wonderful to watch. Not only did he deliver some of the most realistic “drunk” acting I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing but he was perfectly, remarkably understated in his use of his body. For a man who could have matched “Daanish” in histrionics back in the day, the control and discipline on display was really just… well, it was just Amitabh.

I’ve raved about Dhanush many times before and his performance in Shamitabh was more of the same high quality I’ve come to expect from him. Acting without speaking. Being able to convey both meaning and emotion without using words. It’s not easy. I remember hearing Joss Whedon and the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer talk about filming the silent episode “Hush” (in which demons come to to town and steal everybody’s voices.) When they were first rehearsing, the actors found it difficult to get the pacing right. Everybody went through their “dialogues” too fast. The actors found it very challenging to convey meaning through gesture alone. Dhanush nails it. There is one scene where he’s describing how he wants to be a hero like… and he does Hrithik’s dance move from “Ek Pal Ka Jeena” and in a flash we understand he means Hrithik.

Dhanush’s silent cries of pain and longing. Amitabh’s dialogues with trees and city buses. These things are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful to watch and even if the story wasn’t as good as it was would still make the film well worth the price of ticket. Dhanush is given more scope in the first half of the film, Amitabh in the second. Their partnership is a prickly one of two rivals trying to one-up each other. Except the winner here is the audience.

The conceit of Amitabh’s voice coming from Daanish’s lips is interesting--the actorly equivalent of an echo pedal for guitar--and there were a handful of scenes that played with it in a really nice way, just in that fashion. Amitabh’s voice meaning one thing coming from him and the same words echoed back from Daanish a few seconds later. It was really, really enjoyable to watch the two play off of each other.

Because at the heart of the story is the idea of the filmi star. What makes a star a star? Good looks? Connections? Talent? Shamitabh reminds us that the star we see on screen is the end product of the work of many, many people. A single person could never “be” the legend that is Amitabh Bachchan. The legend would be incomplete without the dialogues of Salim-Javed, the directorial hand of Ramesh Sippy, the singing voice of Kishore Kumar, the music of RD Burman, the sizzling on-screen chemistry with Rekha.

I alluded to a subplot involving the unfortunate divide between mass and class cinemas earlier and it served to highlight the difference between what “Shamitabh” and Shamitabh have to offer us over other fare at the cinema--including a sadly real and truly dire looking film advertised in the previews called NH10. Stripping away all filminess from a film is going to leave you with a product that has a limited audience appeal. Strip away all meaning from a film and your product has a limited shelf life. It’s in the merging of the two that you have the best cinema. And Shamitabh is not just a portmanteau but a mixture of class and mass elements--the shaky masala camera when Daanish gets angry, the deliberate inclusion of a song, the metaphorical use of medicine. Balki knows exactly what he’s doing here.

If I’ve dwelled on Amitabh and Daanish, it’s because they are the main focus of the film but I want to give special comment to three actors whose names I couldn’t find: the woman playing Daanish’s mother, the child actor playing young Daanish, and the actor who played the graveyard keeper, a role that was basically acting as comedian to Amitabh’s hero. All three were wonderful. Proof again that there are no small roles, just small actors.

I also want to give a few words of praise to Akshara Haasan, who had the unenviable task of basically playing a plot exposition device. Although I was very wary at first--Yet another star kid? Really?--I ended up finding her quite likable. She was a nice foil for the experienced duo of Dhanush and Amitabh because she was green as a performer and very, very understated in her delivery. Little things like how she kept having to brush her hair out of her eyes and the butch wardrobe choices that if they are drawing from real life Akshara, I would probably very much enjoy hanging out with her. Akshara had very little romantic chemistry with Dhanush but I honestly feel like the story was much better without it. “Akshara” falls in with “Daanish” because she, as a woman who wants to be a director, is just as much an outsider as he is. They bond over their love of films, not hearts and flowers.

Shamitabh is a film of many layers and meanings and I don’t think one watch can unpack everything Balki shoved into it. I mean, come on, Amitabh delivers a Filmfare Award worthy monologue to the side of an empty bus. If that’s not enough to get you into the theater, I don’t know what hope there is for cinema.

1 comment:

odadune said...

I'm glad you had a good time-it seemed like you needed it. :) The film sounds interesting, and although I have zero interest in Cheeni Kum or Paa I think I will have to check this out when it comes to dvd.

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