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.