Saket on Shamitabh

Saw Shamitabh the other day. As a film, it has its cute little moments and enough mirth to leave a positive impression. But it always nagged me that there was more to the film. It’s decidedly Meta in its name – and here’s my theory – it’s Balki’s open-ended question to all film aficionados: what would have happened to Amitabh Bachchan –the actor – without his famous baritone?

In the film, there’s a conflict that arises between a gifted but mute actor and a washed-out struggler with an impressive baritone. In a metaphorical sense, Balki pits Amitabh’s acting talents against his own voice. So Dhanush stands in for Amitabh (as an actor) and Bachchan for his own voice. The film then asks the question: What would have happened if an actor as gifted as Bachchan was born with a handicap?

As a Bachchan fan, I can recall his brilliant portrayal of a mute character in Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera but few people would have cared for Bachchan purely as an actor. Now, can anyone imagine Deewar with some other actor filling Bachchan’s shoes? And without his baritone? Try imagining the following line of dialogue in any other voice: “Tum log mujhe dhund rahe ho aur main tumhara yahan intazar kar raha hoon.” It simply wouldn’t work.

As an in-joke, Bachchan recalls how he was rejected by All India Radio in the film. He plays a bitter character and goes on to mention that he found it difficult to get work in Bollywood because his voice was so potent. With his ordinary face he struggled to become a hero (another in-joke) and with his voice being so powerful other heroes wouldn’t let him play villain, for obvious reasons. His commanding voice turns out to be a curse in disguise. (I began to think: is there real-life symmetry to this angle? Suresh Oberoi’s name instantly comes to mind. He too had a dominant voice but beyond a point, his acting career floundered.)

In Shamitabh, Dhanush uses Amitabh’s voice in an action-packed film called Lifebuoy to gain instant stardom. Tired of his hired man’s tantrums, when he tries to enthral audiences with just his acting talent (while playing a mute character in another film), he’s unsuccessful. Similarly, when Amitabh Sinha – the man who represents Amitabh’s voice – tries to launch an incompetent producer’s son (in a commercial film called Thappad, no less) by lending his own voice, he too faces rejection.

Balki posits that the voice adds another dimension only if the character is appealing enough for the masses. This probably is true for Bachchan’s career as well. There’s also the message that both acting talent and impressive dialogue delivery go hand in hand. By that point, the film (and Balki’s direction) becomes less interesting.

Then there is the curious ending, which simply doesn’t follow, at least in a literal sense. In a case of severe irony, the man with the silken voice is rendered speechless and the talented actor is rendered ‘mute’ forever. As Danish and Sinha reconcile their differences, they are separated by a quirk of fate. It’s as if to say it’s not possible for such a partnership to co-exist. You can have one or the other, but it’s impossible to have both. If this is what Balki was aiming to say all along, then it all comes together – it’s his ultimate ode to the (singular) talent of Amitabh Bachchan.

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24 Responses to “Saket on Shamitabh”

  1. I meant to say something on this earlier myself but wasn’t quite able to get around to it. Your own response now provides me the perfect opportunity to say everything I’ve wanted to.

    To start off I’ll just say that I found the film to be a terrible misfire. It’s not a patch on Balki’s two earlier films in any sense. I’d been saying this for sometime but ever since the first proper theatrical trailer I had the sense that there was something wrong with the film. For one Balki is chiefly a director of the lyrical and the quirky (I am hardly original in saying this) and he’s always uneasy dealing with drama precisely because he’s a sincere filmmaker. In other words you can work in an epic mode with lyric interludes (if you know how to do this well) but it’s very hard if not impossible to go from the lyric to the dramatic without this controlling and transcendent frame. One ends up losing the virtues of both. But leaving this aside even the moments that work are far less sharp and inspired than comparable ones in Balki’s older work. He just never gets the tonal pitch right on this film. It seems very much like a work in progress throughout. Finally I’ll add that though Dhanush nonetheless worked in some moments I did not like Bachchan in it at all. Simply too over-pitched a performance and frankly unpardonable coming from him.

    But now to get to heart of the matter and connect with certain things you were saying as well. While I understand the non-diegetic overdetermination of the film (but this too makes it problematic in other ways.. what’s the Sarkar lesson here? If you need to do this go all the way.. the narrative should then completely mirror the non-diegetic.. here in Shamitabh the choice of the otherwise talented Dhanush spoils the symmetry completely because for a Hindi audience he simply cannot provide that non-diegetic continuity.. in other words Dhanush speaking in Bachchan’s voice is simply freaky.. this itself wouldn’t be an issue if Balki were precisely not stressing on a legend by setting things up this way.. the idea that a ‘nobody’ could employ this voice is a conceit that is impossible for a Hindi audience to expect BECAUSE of the non-diegetic nature of Balki’s framing) I am not very sympathetic to it. Bachchan has an extraordinary voice and he has extraordinary physicality. What’s the problem with this statement? It makes sense only as long as one assumes the history of Amitabh Bachchan! Does he not have a good voice? Would he not have imposing physicality otherwise? He would. But we don’t have any access to that Amitabh Bachchan who wasn’t a star. In other words it is the medium that precisely brings out his titanic talents. It is not that he has these in reserve somewhere and he just needs cinema to bring it out. Rather he becomes who he is through cinema.

    But one should take this logic further. Even within cinema he needed to be at a certain inflection point and get the kinds of parts that he did to set in motion the event he became. Of course I don’t for a moment believe that somehow the films ‘made’ him. Not at all. But he needed those vehicles to again become what he could really be. No one could watch Anand and think he could be the Vijay of Deewar let alone the Iqbal of Coolie. One might have said he was a talented actor or whatever but that is very far from the seminal history he unleashed beginning with Zanjeer. One of the most under-appreciated gifts he has are those of metamorphosis. This is because people think he’s this supremely talented actor who kept doing his parts as well as he could and the rest is history. But again this is hopelessly inadequate. It is not just that from say Deewar to AAA you get a completely different persona with that transition. it is that even the angry young man from film to film (at least the iconic, important ones) keeps evolving. There is a world of difference between the Deewar portrayal and the Trishul one or the Don one (once again the non-diegetic intervenes.. for the latter you really needed a star at the peak of his career and of course one sees this even more in the one-man industry phase) and so on. There is similarly a great difference between the characters of the Prakash Mehra films and the Salim-Javed scripts much less between these and the Desai films. One could multiply these examples.

    The idea of then decoupling these moments of absolute stardom and performance from the history in which they came about is hopelessly misplaced. Here one should take the All India Radio rejection seriously. Yes he had a good voice and no one noticed it but the full resources of that voice were really employed again through the roles he took up. The voice too ‘became’ in the same way. In short Amitabh Bachchan invented himself in the truest sense with Zanjeer and everything else that followed. This is not to confirm the usual banality that of course any star gets ‘invented’ with success but that Bachchan used it to deploy a whole new vocabulary and arsenal of representation and not only took this to its summit but kept metamorphosing throughout and added to its potency (at least till he got deep into the one-man industry phase and things got too crystalized).

    It is therefore a fantasy to try and decouple Bachchan from his voice. Much as it is an equal fantasy to read in Anand (or whatever) the Bachchan of Deewar or Kaala Pathar. If he hadn’t got those later parts he would never have become who he was.

    I’d say this is true for life in general. We don’t pre-exist all our possibilities but that given certain possibilities we become equal (or not) to them. Of course we do have ‘natures’ and everything is not possible for everyone in every circumstance in the very same way. There is a permutational mechanism here in some ways. But in any given situation all permutations are not possible. Rajesh Khanna couldn’t have become what he did in 1950, Dilip Kumar couldn’t have become what he did in 2005. But equally we could have gone through the 70s without Amitabh Bachchan. It would have been a less important decade had that happened. We would have seen the same cinematic trends in some ways but we wouldn’t have seen a star spear-heading all those concerns, reinventing them, giving these his own precise means and modes of expression and hence legitimizing them in certain formulations but at the very same time also (re)inventing himself.

    And if the same great star has found it hard forever to reinvent himself in the stable sense of the word or remain fixed at a certain level it is because he has been unable to repeat himself in uninteresting fashion (as was often the case in the late 80s and onwards) and even moreso he has been unable to simply blend into a newer paradigm that was simply too weak and too bankrupt to make use of his gifts and meaning. And this is something the audience always intuits. The absolute demand for him as a cultural figure beyond any other confirms this. The varying response to many of his parts in more contemporary times does so as well. He can still have great triumphs in a biographical sense. So take Paa. What does this confirm? That he’s a great actor. It becomes that which allows a contemporary audience to reinvest in this idea of his absolute capabilities (much as Black did earlier). Much as all his public appearances and interventions in so many avenues allows them to reinvest in his magnetic physicality. There is still great evidence for both. But combining the two still cannot get us to the event and meaning of his signature. He and the audience can keep plumbing this history to enable lots of things in the present and many significant moments can and have come out of this. But the blaze of that event is something else. In fairness no one can keep this alive forever. Times change, the world changes. It is absurd to think one would forever be occupying the world of Deewar! But the challenge for such a seminal figure is to find that form of expression, that mode of meaning in another age that can then be seen as some kind of equivalent for that older period. Something that can build a bridge to the latter not by simple repetition but by reconfiguring the space of the same. Put differently, one cannot simply exit an event. Not even the star at its center. There is a price to be paid either way, the question then is: how does one negotiate it?

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    • I’d add a few more things here. The film might have been better if Bachchan could have lost his voice completely when Dhanush gained it. They might had had to resort to fantasy to do this but the film would have been more symmetric in this sense. One of the problems here is that Bachchan ‘speaks’ for Dhanush but also for himself. The other thing here is (call this the Main Azaad Hoon problem) that Bachchan as this wastrel more or less is hard to reconcile, again non-diegetically, with the Bachchan who’s so transcendent everywhere in cultural life. He is the very model of success and accomplishment even at his age, he is in demand at every kind of public function and yet here he is inhabiting a cemetery. Now I do agree with Rangan that a lot of these cues are otherwise suggestive but I think the film is never quite able to exploit them. The ‘offscreen’ keeps intervening. Once more this is where RGV was perfect in Sarkar (whatever else one might think of the film), he fuses the diegetic and non-diegetic so completely that the audience cannot really be distracted (this can be a danger in other situations though.. if you show a real-life married couple as one on screen the audience thinks the fiction illuminates reality). And similarly there are some trademark Balki moments one. The Piddly song is rather inspired. Bachchan starts off alone in the bathroom (using the toilet-paper as instrument for instance) and then the song becomes a kind of background score for other moments. Sadly the film is too often off-gear for these moments to really count. If I was disappointed not to be able to find the Balki of his earlier triumphs here I was equally distressed to discover Amitabh Bachchan as off-key as he is in this film. The former failure seems somehow more comprehensible than the latter one.

      To repeat something Rangan said it is true that Balki tries the improbable exercise of taking apart the Bachchan phenomenon and examining how the pieces work. But this gets me back to the earlier point. The event is not just the sum of its parts. It is about that indefinable ‘extra’. In Paa the physicality of the star is effaced, here the voice is detached from the body (or almost because it does double-duty), in CK you have the ‘age’ of the star made the subject of much humor. It’s interesting as far as it goes, i.e. Balki’s larger effort but it is (on my terms) a misplaced project. But Shamitabh is even at a basic narrative level quite off the mark.

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      • combined these comments into one on Bachchan’s blog.

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      • But Shamitabh is even at a basic narrative level quite off the mark.

        I wouldn’t be as harsh on the film but I can understand your issues with it. It does have its moments; the spoof on Bollywood as a whole, the scene at Filmfare awards night where Dhanush lays into the organizers for not winning the best debutant award; the “ghunta” moment (I laughed really hard) and even Dhanush’s struggle/flashback sequences were good.

        It’s true that the film focuses more on Dhanush and less on Amitabh but that is part of the overall narrative. Amitabh isn’t at his absolute best in the film but I thought he did well with what he was given. One can’t expect miracles from a supporting role and that too one where he’s mostly shown as a cantankerous drunk. My problem stems from the fact that his character was actually too prosaic. He should have been written as a nasty old man (with a violent temper) to counter the excessive importance meted out to Dhanush, at least in the literal sense. Figuratively speaking, the film is all about Bachchan. It’s uneven, I agree, but there are worse films out there. Bollywood is chalk-full of them.

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      • The event is not just the sum of its parts. It is about that indefinable ‘extra’. In Paa the physicality of the star is effaced, here the voice is detached from the body (or almost because it does double-duty), in CK you have the ‘age’ of the star made the subject of much humor. It’s interesting as far as it goes, i.e. Balki’s larger effort but it is (on my terms) a misplaced project.

        Not even all Bachchan fans are so invested in his iconic status. I certainly am not offended by it. Balki’s ‘project’ doesn’t deconstruct Bachchan the way Karan Johar or YRF did (with the exception of Bunty Aur Babli); his films are usually a whimsical tribute of some sort. Ultimately, Amitabh Bachchan did more harm to his own iconic status by working with the wrong filmmakers. Balki, for all his silliness, is always on Bachchan’s side. One can question his execution (but that’s a common complaint to be found in all his films) but not his motive, which I’m sure you aren’t doing as well.

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        • I agree with all your points here. But I’m not offended by Balki, even in Shamitabh. My point just was that the project is a misplaced one inasmuch as it tries to ‘reconstruct’ the moments of the event. Take Paa for example. At one level Bachchan is incredible here effacing himself completely and relying almost entirely on body language and so on (because his face is buried under prosthetics) which itself is remarkable given his height. But I’d say this too misreads things. The idea that Bachchan is a great actor who might have become a victim of his success so that no matter how seminal those interventions were they enhanced his signature but at the same time blocked off many avenues for a different sort of performer that he might have become. I’d disagree with this too. Yes Bachchan was probably talented enough to be good in a lot of ways (cinematically) but he became this event by developing that signature. And so it’s paradoxical to try and hunt for a ‘buried actor’ here when the most incredible actor is on display with that signature. If you cancel the signature you lose the actor as well. You might still be left with a talented one but that’s a far cry from being an epochal one. Shakespeare is utterly brilliant even as a sonnet writer but to really be the ‘greatest’ he had to write those plays. I’m going to put it even more provocatively here. It would have been a waste of Amitabh Bachchan if he had turned into Naseeruddin Shah. Not because the latter isn’t a fine or even great actor but that the ‘meaning’ of Amitabh Bachchan is far greater. I don’t mean this in some sense of historical oneupmanship so that the greater you are as a star the more likely you are to survive and hence you should choose this fate. My point is that Bachchan’s greatest work is simply more valuable for all the ‘meanings’ it unleashes. Put differently I don’t consider most of Naseer’s films important enough even if he is very good in all of them. Now if Naseer had mostly acted in Ray’s films I’d have a different take on this entire equation. Similarly I am most invested in the iconic with respect to Bachchan as a vehicle of meaning and not simply as an aesthetic phenomenon (dazzling as it might be on this score).

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          • Satyam: Reading your comments throughout this thread has been an education, really an education. And comments (and pieces…from you, GF, Q and others) are exactly the reason why I had started this blog few years back. Just amazing stuff, thank you.

            “Put differently I don’t consider most of Naseer’s films important enough even if he is very good in all of them.”-

            This is true. But this is also because India doesn’t have a proper film culture. In any other industry (where such a culture exists) Naseer would have been a really important figure.

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    • omrocky786 Says:

      Re.-I did not like Bachchan in it at all. Simply too over-pitched a performance and frankly unpardonable coming from him

      wow, coming from Satyam, this is huge !!!
      Saket’s and Rangan’s review was prompting me to watch it on DVD but Satyam’s piece is making me go back to skipping it !
      Dharam Sankat …

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  2. The decoupling happens all the time in other ways. When singers lend their voice to actors.Kishore Kumar used to adjust his voice according to actors, they say. We cant separate Raj Kapoor from Mukesh’s songs. Every Mukesh song feels like Raj Kapoor is singing that song. Rafi for Shammi Kapoor. Kishore Kumar for Rajesh Khanna.

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    • I think it is to do with conditioning. We hardwire the voice which comes first and think of it as truth or only available option.

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  3. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    “When singers lend their voice to actors.Kishore Kumar used to adjust his voice according to actors, they say. We cant separate Raj Kapoor from Mukesh’s songs. Every Mukesh song feels like Raj Kapoor is singing that song. Rafi for Shammi Kapoor. Kishore Kumar for Rajesh Khanna.” I dont belive this. Mukesh became Raj Kapoor’s voice because Raj Kapoor used hsi voice cosistently. SAm with Dilipand Rafi. But look at Dev Anand… Rafi is his voice as much as Kishore is. FRom Amitabh Bachchan to Vinod Mehra, from Dharmendra to Rakesh Roshan, Kishore Kumar is the voice of everyone in the 70s. It’s not written in stone.

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    • sanjana Says:

      KIshore Kumar has somewhat generic voice which suited many actors if not all. That maybe the reason he lasted quite long during transition period. From Dev Anand to Bachchan and even to later heroes. And then there is Sonu Nigam’s voice who suits all actors. And there are unique voices like K.L.Saigal’s, Mukesh’s and Talat Mehmood’s.

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      • Don’t agree at all on Kishore. He had an absolutely unique voice. he adapted it to many stars but that doesn’t mean it was a generic voice. I think that most great singers have that ability.

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        • sanjana Says:

          In the south TMS who adjusted his voice according to actors as different as Sivaji Ganesan and MGR. While the soft voice of A.M.Rajah suited Gemini Ganesan. And then there was Ghantasala for telugu heroes and P.B.Srinivas who was at ease singing for almost all South Indian stars.

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  4. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Brilliant exposition, Satyam. THe film did not work for me and I stopped thinking about it. But you have pinpointed with an expert’s precison why the film does not work. I am not too big a fan of Bachchan’s current work, because his persona has become too big and no director is able to cut through that to get a real performance out of him. Only when he is shorn of his familiar bearded look that he has ben able to connect to you as a character other than Bachahn – Khaki and Paa – and these are his two best in recent times fr me.

    But where you have really touched the skies Satyam is in encapsulating the Bachchan phenomenon , characterizing him rightly as the god of reinvention, the wizard of metamorphosis. I get goosepimples just visualizing the fleeting images of Babu Moshai, Vijay, Don, Anthony, the sakha of Bemisal and the profesor of Chupke Chpke, the jaggery-seller of Saudagar, and Mr Natwarlal, the devads of Muqadar Ka sIkndar, the sharabi tycoon, and the poet-lover of Silisila and Kabhi Kabhi not to mention the daku of Ganga ki Saugandh. Of course the latter few I have listed were not explored and multiplied over different films as much as the first few. But each of these larger-than-life templates that he created were good enough for five films each. But there is only so many films that a star in his youthful peak can do.

    As an eulogy of the Bachchan phenomenon this is as you call it – a big misfire. Kashyap’s Murabba story in Mumbaii Matinee was more inventive, more quirky, more lyrical, and achieved so much more by saying so less.

    Any way, I am tempted now to look for my own eulogy of Bachchan that I wrote a few yeas back. Will post it if I can find it.

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  5. Amitabh’s baritone is cultivated, honed along with his acting skills. You have to see “bhuvan shome” to know what I am talking abt.

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  6. sanjana Says:

    Shamitabh could have experimented with some newcomer who could resemble Bachchan in physicality but not in voice. The established ones have their own established voices and their speaking in Bachchan’s voice would have looked weird. Balki mixed wine with coffee.

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  7. Utkal Mohanty Says:

    Okay. I found it – my eulogy on Amitabh Bachchan. Long, but every word heart-felt.

    The incomparable Amitabh – My diary of a passionate engagement over two decades

    [post created]

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  8. sanjana Says:

    If the films are boring but with melodious songs, the songs remain with us and we forget those films. Many very old films remain in our memory because of songs, singers, composers and lyricists. If the films are good and music is also good, then that is bonanza. Sometimes films are very good and the songs are average and below average. Majority of melodious songs are from films which are just average or below average. Music saved those films from fading away.

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  9. A very fine piece Saket and I am so glad that you highlighted Reshma aur Shera. Thanks for this

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