Originally posted part of the ‘Bollywood Nights’ series at The Guardian:
“The most God-awful film I have ever seen in any genre, anywhere in the world”
Nirpal Dhaliwal reviews ‘The Last Lear‘, the latest in the emerging English-language Bollywood film industry, starring the ubiquitous Amitabh Bachan.
You’d think that Shakespeare and Bollywood would be made for each other. If the Bard were alive today, his histrionic melodramas would’ve made him the fattest cat in Mumbai, his couch worn to splinters by the legions of actresses he’d have cast for his ridiculous scripts. Even dead, he’s still managed to inseminate India’s movie industry to spawn the ghastly bastard devil-child that is The Last Lear – the most god-awful film I have ever seen in any genre, anywhere in the world.
Bollywood overlord Amitabh Bachchan plays a cranky ageing thespian, Harish Mishra, who is lured out of retirement in Calcutta for his first movie role by a hip young director, Siddarth (Arjun Rampal). During filming he befriends Shabnam, a naive young starlet, played by the enticing Preity Zinta. An English language movie, rare in mainstream India, The Last Lear possesses the worst traits of Indian English-language novels – prolixity, sanctimony and an absence of any originality – while lacking their craft and erudition. Plodding, cliche-ridden, humourless and wholly one-dimensional, the script feels as if it was written by a lobotomised Kiran Desai.
Bachchan’s performance as the supposedly wizened theatrical genius, Harish, is so atrocious that I almost puked with laughter at it. Looking like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, with a huge mane of unkempt white hair, he gives Siddarth an impromptu soliloquy from The Tempest. But Harish’s Prospero consists of him roaring insanely as he inhumanly strains his face, as if passing the most excruciating bowel movement, while aimlessly flailing his arms (I beg someone to upload the scene onto YouTube. It’s SO funny!). But rather than greasing his fingers and helping the poor old boy with a manual evacuation, Siddarth simply claps and gasps, “Brilliant!”
The dialogue is stunningly bad. While wandering in a forest during the shoot, Shabnam asks Harish for some tips on acting. Wearing a woolly bobble-hat and a matching scarf, the sort you stopped wearing when you started walking to school on your own, Harish replies: “Do you know why people act?” Shabnam’s tremulously waits a moment before the sage gives the answer with God-like gravitas. “Because they have a desire to perform,” he says. That’s as profound as it got for over two hours.
The film takes itself painfully seriously, filled with contrived solemnity as its characters ponder the fakeness of the movie world in contrast with Harish’s stage-honed authenticity. But it’s still crammed with Bollywood’s most outrageous absurdities. On realising that the final scene will involve a cliff-top stunt, Harish insists on doing it himself in order retain his artistic integrity, despite being 75 years old and almost blind. And, desiring the film to be a masterpiece of realism, Siddarth not only indulges him but makes the stunt even more dangerous, making the old man take a leap that leaves him seriously injured. If Siddarth were such a murderously uncompromising auteur, you wonder why he chose the world’s worst actor to star for him in the first place. Harish duly returns to his roaring form when Shabnam recites King Lear to his comatose body.
The use of English rather than Hindi – no doubt an attempt at breaking into a wider audience – grates throughout. Harish speaks a ludicrously hammy English, filled with Tony Blairisms (lots of “c’mons” and “y’knows”). Everyone else speaks with a regular Indian accent – apart from the woman hired to nurse him, who seems to be based on the faux-wogs of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. The only time Bachchan is remotely believable is when Harish is drunk and lapses into an Indian accent reminiscent of the uncouth street-wise characters that he played so brilliantly as a young man.
There was a time when Amitabh Bachchan was India’s Steve McQueen, James Stewart and Sean Connery all rolled into one, but in The Last Lear he’s a deranged Bollywood mishmash of Bruce Forsyth and Derek Jacobi. This could be the film by which the English-speaking world will judge him – which is a crying shame. Everyone else, despite the fact that they never shift out of second gear, consummately acts him off the screen. Shakespeare’s work is supposed to be every actor’s dream material, but for Bachchan – and the viewer – it’s an absolute nightmare.