Note: This is an exclusive review from a reviewer that had the opportunity to watch the film at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. Remember, you read it first on BollySpice.com!
Starring: Amitabh Bachchan, Preity Zinta, Arjun Rampal, Shefali Shah, Divya Dutta
Director: Rituparno Ghosh
Rituparno Ghosh is a far cry from ordinary. He does not make films for the masses, he does not make films to help people escape reality and he does not make films to revel in the luxuries of money. He makes simple films soaked with emotions—films that make you feel. As Cameron Bailey so rightly put it at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “Rituparno Ghosh can make a simple conversation between two characters unbelievably dramatic.” After watching The Last Lear, I heartily agree.
There are those that are so inadequately skilled that they throw emotions in your face to trigger laughs and wrench tears from audiences. And then there are those, whose proficiency is so overwhelming that a simple dialogue or gesture can open the gates to a flood of emotions. Rituparno Ghosh belongs to the latter. There are also those whose mind is painted stark black and white that they need to spell everything out as if they are making a film for a two-year old child. And then there are those whose eye is so tuned, who showcase their mastery of detail so vividly that only the most attentive of viewers can bask in the splendor.
Many people like to draw a thick line between ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ films. In the world of cinema, this is a line I fail to recognize because filmmaking is an art, which comes in various expressions. And let me tell you, if you open your eyes to the world of art—real art like The Last Lear—you are in for a treat.
William Shakespeare is often regarded as the ultimate master of literature and remains an inspiration to millions around the world. It seems director Rituparno Ghosh holds Shakespeare in high esteem as well, high enough to heavily incorporate his play, King Lear, into his latest, and first English-language film. Adapted from Utpal Dutt’s play Aajkar Shahjahaan, The Last Lear is not an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, but instead follows an aged, reclusive and quirky actor named Harishraj Mishra (Amitabh Bachchan). He has shoulder-length silvery hair, hates when people pee outside his house, refuses to buy a regular doorbell and likes to be called Harry. He is a bizarre man, but he is a man with passion—a passion for Shakespeare, and only Shakespeare.
As a theatre actor, Harry has portrayed an unbelievable magnitude of characters from Shakespearean plays, but his career was cut short a week before the opening of King Lear, in which he was to play the title role; the role he had been dying to play for his entire life. Withdrawn and secluded in his flat, his passion is re-awakened when director Siddharth Kumar (Arjun Rampal) approaches and finally coaxes him into playing the lead in his next film titled ‘The Mask’. Siddharth himself is quite the literary expert, and it is his vast knowledge of Shakespeare that attracts Harry into working with him. The two develop a warm relationship and share humorous moments together. As they begin work on their film, the story takes a turn while Harry meets Shabnam (Preity Zinta), an actress in grave need of acting tips. Another friendship blossoms until one shot in particular changes Harry’s life—forever.
Harishraj Mishra is laying in bed. Ailing. Motionless. And speechless. It is the premiere of ‘The Mask’ but the leading man cannot muster a clap for his own film. Siddharth refuses to visit him while Shabnam tries her level best to bring him back to life. Through intriguing and fantastically written conversations between Shabnam, Vandana (a woman living with Harry, played by Shefali Shah) and Ivy (Harry’s nurse, played by Divya Dutta) and the conscious of a guilt-ridden journalist (Jishu Sengupta), we slip back into time to where the reels began to roll—and got tragically stuck.
Heavily laced with Shakespearean dialogues and undertones, The Last Lear is a subtly crafted film. More-so than the story itself, it is the powerful and earth-shattering dialogues that make The Last Lear truly an apt tribute to Shakespeare. More than half of the film is a series of dialogues, so beguiling that the viewer is left captivated. It’s hard to believe that such simple conversations can create so many wonderful dramatic moments on celluloid. It simply proves that it is not a bucket of tears that defines drama, but circumstances, situations, what’s spoken and sometimes what’s left unspoken. It’s an extraordinary feat for a writer used to writing in Hindi or Bengali to present dialogues in English which are undoubtedly world-class. When all is said and done and you creep out of your seat, it is the dialogues that stay with you.
It does take about thirty minutes or so to get used to our stars speaking solely in English, but it grows on you until you start to like it.
Though there are no songs, the background score by 21 Grams is note-worthy and builds up tension throughout the film. What’s nice is that they understand that sometimes silence is the perfect background score. Abhik Mukhopadhyay’s cinematography is essential to setting the tone and his method of snapshots during the climax is extremely interesting and innovative though it might irk a few viewers. However, if one looks at it from a different perspective, those snapshots capture expressions better than a regular rolling film.
All is not well in The Last Lear. The film suffers heavily in the editing department (Arghya Kamal Mitra), especially within the first hour or so. It takes time for the story to pick up pace and start moving. Unfortunately this comes as quite a damper because there are some sparkling scenes in the first half, which might get overlooked due to the crawling pace. Editing in the second half is much better. In fact, the entire film is quite slow in its execution and you wish things would pick up a bit faster, but the brilliant cast keeps you watching.
It seems like Ghosh can take any star, no matter how overbearing their persona, and make them deliver. He did it with Raima Sen in Chokher Bali, Ajay Devgan and Aishwarya Rai in Raincoat and Soha Ali Khan and Abhishek Bachchan in Antar Mahal. And he has done it again with his entire cast.
Divya Dutta is cute as Ivy and she really does have a penchant for dialogue delivery. One really hopes she gets bigger roles in the future, as she continues to prove that she’s a great actress. Jisshu Sengupta is quite good as the journalist, but his voice lacks the power and gripping voice quality required of his narration scenes. Shefali Shah is an absolute scene-stealer and delivers a performance full of fire and gusto. She takes to her character beautifully and her facial expressions are priceless. Wow!
Arjun Rampal has long been ridiculed for his lack of impact as an actor, but naturally, Ghosh extracts quite a worthy performance. There are times where he stumbles, but overall he pulls his role off well. It’s his sometimes mundane facial expressions that fail to match up with his powerful dialogue delivery. This will most definitely act as a stepping stone in his career. He definitely deserves to be noticed in his scenes with Amitabh, which are some of the most enjoyable of the film.
She once claimed that art films don’t pay and she doesn’t work in them because she doesn’t want to live in a hut. If it’s Preity’s prerogative to call this an art film, then please, do more of them! Films like Salaam Namaste, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and even Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna have not exploited her talent well enough. As Shabnam, she proves that it is not the glamorous clothing, excess make-up or Yash Raj stamp that makes her who she is. On the other hand, she is an accomplished actress that has been quietly hiding and remaining complacent with ordinary roles, waiting to lash out and prove to us that she is worthy of her slot as a leading actress in Indian cinema. It’s not so much the earlier part of the film or during dramatic scenes in which she excels. Surprisingly, she is the best during conversations with Vandana. She’s outstanding during the last scene, and has expressed herself better in English than we have seen her express herself in Hindi for quite some time.
As I write this review, I do not know behind which corners to search for words to describe the astonishing talent that runs through Amitabh Bachchan’s veins. When watching him on screen, it’s hard for any viewer to forget they are watching Amitabh Bachchan. But in this role, you forget about Big B and you are only intrigued into the world of Harishraj Mishra and his eccentricities. There is no, I repeat, no other actor in this industry that could have pulled this role off with so much power. Whenever he projects his baritone voice and bellows Shakespearean dialogues, it sends an intense shiver through your body. For all those in doubt of his talent, let me remind you that Amitabh Bachchan is THE best. If you don’t believe me, go watch The Last Lear and leave behind any star-persona you have attached to his name. It’s a pleasure to watch the film just for him. Not even Shakespeare would be able to find words to express how brilliant he was. More so than Shakespeare, The Last Lear is an ode to Amitabh Bachchan.
At the end of the gala film premiere at TIFF, the audience, Indians and non-Indians rose to give a standing ovation. As we slowly walked out of the theatre, each one of us were in complete awe. There were hushed conversations, most commenting on Amitabh’s astounding performance. Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear is art at its finest. There are blemishes with the pacing of the film and the editing, but any connoisseur of cinema would be delighted to indulge in such an authentic experience. Rituparno Ghosh has put together a film to be a proud of and a film to be appreciated by all lovers of art and literature.
As William Shakespeare once said: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, 139-140). Let me tell you Mr. Rituparno Ghosh, you have played your part brilliantly.