[Cast: Amitabh Bacchan, Dhanush, Akshara Hassan; Music: Ilaiyaraja; Direction: R. Balki]

Self-referenced indulgent movies aren’t new to Indian cinema. Many of Shah Rukh and Rajini movies continually refer back to their previous hits in the hope of extracting some excited cheer from their fans. Shamitabh is the next milestone in that journey of self-referenced films. In order to make this film work, you’ve got accept the premise that you are going to be watching Bacchan Senior and Dhanush as they enact themselves and not as some other characters and, therefore, there is going to be a lot of references to their stardom and personality. Once you’re ready for it, Shamitabh is largely enjoyable.

Perhaps to help you with that mind-set, director Balki has kept the names of their characters close to reality. So, Dhanush plays Daanish, a mute guy with an abundant acting talent looking for a break. Amitabh plays Amitabh Sinha, a washed up alcoholic shacking up with an undertaker beside a burial ground, because, you see where else in Mumbai can you get a flat with a nice garden for 500 rupees rent? He has one foot in the grave, having actually reserved one for himself which he uses as his living room! In his youth, he had tried and failed to become an actor. Akshara Hassan plays Akshara, the assistant director who has actually spotted the talent in Daanish and is trying to get him a break. They are at Amitabh’s door requesting him to lend his voice for this mute guy. This is not your conventional movie dubbing, but is enabled by a new, emerging, technology in Finland, where a transmitter planted inside Daanish’s throat that enables him to receive Amitabh’s voice via Bluetooth and reproduce as if it is coming out of his own mouth. That required an extended suspension of disbelief to accept that a village boy gets sponsored to go to Finland to get this surgery carried out for free of charge and they are able to carry out this ‘dubbing-business’ without anybody noticing it.

But those are not the things Director Balki is interested in. He doesn’t waste his time in in making this premise logically acceptable. He is only interested in the exposition of this novel concept of Bacchan voice-dubbing for Dhanush and all the possibilities it can throw up. For instance, hearing his own voice coming out of Daanish’s mouth, Amitabh looks perplexed. Looking at his expression, Akshara asks ‘Doesn’t your voice sound good coming from his mouth?’, to which Amitabh replies, ‘This voice will sound good even if it comes out of a dog’s mouth.’ And the crowd erupts. These are the scenes that Balki really cared. And there are plenty of such instances for the audience to erupt in joy. Because Balki knows that throughout the film he is only referring to Bacchan the star and not Amitabh Sinha, the audience are also keenly aware of this. So much so that, when, in a scene where Daanish beats up Amitabh, it is not shown directly. You only see Dhanush’s face . Obviously you can’t show Dhanush beating up Bacchan, can you?

Having accepted that premise myself personally, I thoroughly enjoyed all those moments of rivalry between the actor and his voice. Both Bacchan and Dhanush are terrific in their roles as they tease, bicker and fight with each other.

Alas, after a point, this becomes a bit tiring and repetitive. Still, Danush and Bacchan manage to hold you to your seat with their awesome presence. And a review of this film isn’t going to be complete without mentioning Ilaiyaraja’s score, both in the songs and the background score. Boy, does this man ever get old? I mean, he is seventy and at this age, most composers can’t even satisfactorily compile an anthology album, and here he is belting out immensely hummable songs and soul-stirring background score!

What halts this thoroughly enjoyable journey is that forced, and predictable, climax. The film, with its preposterous plot, is actually a tongue-in-cheek in its treatment, so you don’t expect such a melodramatic ending to this otherwise light film. As long as I didn’t take the film seriously, I enjoyed it. But when Balki decided to take himself seriously, the joy stopped. Thank goodness that he made that decision only towards the climax!