When he isn’t dreaming up ways to deify Amitabh Bachchan, Balki heads leading advertising agency Lowe Lintas + Partners, and it shows in the product plugs for Lifebuoy soap and Knorr soup and the smart but short-term ideas that go a few paces before running out of breath.

Shamitabh’s basic plot is cleverness itself. Daanish (Dhanush) hasn’t been able to speak since he was a child but he nevertheless dreams of becoming an actor. With the help of angelic assistant director Akshara (Akshara Haasan) and the wonders of Finnish technology, Daanish gets a throat implant that can affect speech, if an outside voice is so willing.

That voice belongs to Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan), a failed and grizzled actor who lives in a graveyard and hugs a whiskey bottle to bed. Amitabh’s voice and Daanish’s acting talent combine as “Shamitabh”. The combination is a hit. Nobody is any wiser to the fact that Daanish can’t actually speak, and various directors come knocking on the door of the newly minted star. But the ventriloquist soon tires of his secondary status and starts misbehaving.

Shamitabh has the strengths and flaws of Balki’s previous films Cheeni Kum and Paa, which also starred Bachchan. Here are the offbeat story, the easily flowing and witty banter, the quirky and urbane characters, and the light-hearted touch. But here are also the unwieldy and stretched narrative (153 minutes), the unresolved climax, the gimmicky nature of the material and the inability to expand on the movie’s premise.

Balki has a unique feel for comic soufflés, but into his third film, he still hasn’t overcome his tendency to over-elaborate plot detail through dialogue, nor has he arrived at a discernible visual style that can goes beyond basic slick. Shamitabh is choppily shot and assembled, and the movie never lingers on Dhanush’s face long enough to allow his miming to be fully experienced. Can Daanish actually act, or is his success entirely due to the magnificent voice that isn’t his? The movie almost suggests that this is true.

Dhanush is a limited but confident screen presence who made his Hindi language debut with Raanjhanaa in 2013 after years of appearing as the lead actor in Tamil films. Playing a mute character eliminates the need for Dhanush to speak accented Hindi, but it also entirely, and perhaps unfairly, shifts the spotlight onto Bachchan. Shamitabh bats for the underdog while positioning itself at the superstar’s end.

The movie is evenly divided between its characters, and gives Dhanush and Akshara Haasan, in a striking debut performance, plenty of acreage, but the lion’s share of lines and moments are reserved for Bachchan. The great man has plenty of monologues and opportunities to show off his comic timing. Bachchan hasn’t had this meaty a role and this much fun in years. He plays the real power behind the throne with infectious insouciance, delivering an effortless and endearing performance and deftly balancing the requirement to play a fictional character as well as a version of himself.

For all its attempts to shade Bachchan’s character, Shamitabh is an unabashed meta-narrative that invokes its icon’s screen and off-screen history (his frequent co-star and rumoured ex Rekha makes a nifty appearance in one of the movie’s best inside jokes). As a tribute to Bachchan’s baritone, which has boomed out of screens for decades, Shamitabh is perhaps unparalleled, but it’s an unsatisfactory investigation into the collaborative nature of filmmaking and the knotty issues of credit sharing. 

The treacly sentimentality that also stymied Balki’s previous movie Paa makes its appearance on cue after the interval, and the overly contrived build-up to the climax wanders into lessons on movie marketing and audience behaviour. Shamitabh misses some of the cleverest filmmaking ideas that are out there: keep the hand firmly on the steering wheel, cut to the chase and keep it short.

Shamitabh (2015).

Also read:

The sound of India: What happens when Amitabh Bachchan becomes only a voice