A grand old stage vet experiences a tragic downfall when he ventures into his first starring film role in “The Last Lear,” Rituparno Ghosh’s badly calculated behind-the-scenes meller that exhibits a peculiar contemptuousness toward movies and moviemaking. A decidedly serious dramatization of Utpal Dutt’s play, “Aajker Shahjahan” (The Emperor Today), and also partially made to honor superstar Amitabh Bachchan — here incredibly in his first primarily English-lingo pic — Ghosh’s handling is stodgy and dull and calls out for trimming. Local auds and non-resident Indian fans will flock to see this unusual Bachchan project and will patiently look past work’s myriad problems.
The premiere of a film titled “The Mask” provides Ghosh’s narrative with a rather creaky framing device to rewind to the film-within-a-film’s genesis: Journo Gautam (Jisshu Sengupta) uses an interview with great thesp Harish (Harry) Mishra (Bachchan) as a vehicle to introduce the old, crusty artist to rising hot-shot helmer Siddarth (Arjun Rampal).
It takes a long while to fill in this phase of the saga, since the action first involves “Mask” co-star Shabnam (Preity Zinta), hiding from her cruel husband by going to Harry’s home. There, it’s revealed that Harry is now infirm and bedridden, with the household run by his longtime companion Vandana (Shefali Shah), who at first treats Shabnam with spite.
Eventually, the women grow comfortable with each other, as Shabnam relates to Vandana how she got to know Harry while making the film. At the same time, outside the premiere screening, Gautam recalls his side of the Harry story.
Pace is particularly slack in the early going as characters and relationships are established across locales and timeframes, making Harry’s first encounter with Gautam long overdue.
A man living in the memories of his legendary Shakespearean performances, Harry is a flatly drawn curmudgeon that Bachchan uses for the personal pleasure of much scenery chewing, declamations and more than a few of his signature flourishes. A theatrical moment when Harry breaks into a Prospero soliloquy from “The Tempest” in the middle of his Kolkata living room is a case of Shakespeare-gone-kitsch.
Since Harry views the Bard and the theater as almost holy callings, with cinema far down the cultural food chain, the likelihood of him accepting Siddharth’s film offer — to play an aging clown in a down-and-out circus, no less — is a major reach. Script never convinces on this critical matter; on the other hand, the inner workings of a non-Bollywood film set ring true, particularly when the crew works in the stunning Himalayan foothills of Mussoorie.
During a key plot device involving the use of a stunt double for Harry, with Harry insisting that he can do the dangerous stunt himself, pic once again rings false.
Throughout, “The Last Lear” seems to hold to an underlying assumption that theater is a considerably higher artform than cinema, a lesser medium more suited for slick operators like Siddharth. It’s a mighty odd message for moviemakers to deliver.
Alongside Bachchan’s scene-stealing, the ultra-popular pair of Zinta and Rampal manage to hold their own onscreen. It’s an interesting paradox to watch a star like Zinta deliver a good perf as a woman who’s widely known as a bad thesp.
Production aspects are top-line, led by Abhik Mukhopadhyay’s evocative widescreen lensing.