I liked Rituparno Ghosh's The Last Lear overall, though the ending was somewhat desultory and unsatisfying and I thought some characters should have been better fleshed out. The film establishes its downbeat mood straightaway – though it opens on a Diwali night, none of the protagonists are in festive spirits and the interiors, where most of the drama unfolds, are gloomy and claustrophobic: a darkened movie-hall inside which a director, Siddharth (Arjun Rampal), waits distractedly for his film to premiere; a poorly lit apartment where the film's lead actor Harish/Harry (Amitabh Bachchan) lies in a near-comatose state, looked after by his night nurse Ivy (Divya Dutta) and a lady named Vandana (Shefali Shah), whose relationship to him is not immediately clear. This dark tone will dominate the film, notwithstanding a few liberating scenes that depict an outdoor shoot in the hills.
Through the memories of Harry’s co-star Shabnam (Preity Zinta) and those of a young journalist who was partly responsible for the retired theatre actor making his film debut, we flashback to a few months earlier, when the crusty old Harry – fossilizing in his room like a modern-day Miss Havisham – is approached by Siddharth to act in his film. Initially the idea is beneath the old man’s contempt: on stage, an actor is in control of his performance; in a film, he is at the mercy of such arcane things as camerawork and editing; he is broken up into fragments, the camera alternating between close-ups and long-shots, or even cutting away whenever it chooses to. (“I’ve heard you were brilliant as Prospero,” says Siddharth. “Ah, but which Prospero? The one in Calcutta, Bombay or some other city? The one in Act II or Act IV?” cackles Harry, summing up the delicate, personal nature of theatre acting and the special appeal it held for him. It’s quite a thrill to hear Bachchan – whose peak years were spent playing essentially the same character again and again in a series of mainstream films – speak these lines.)
But slowly Harry comes around. Underneath his hard veneer is a little boy who can’t resist the attention, the chance to ply his trade once more on a different type of stage. Besides, the role Siddharth wants him to play – a clown whose art is dying along with the circus – is close to the bone for obvious reasons.
The Last Lear is full of charming moments, including a wonderfully performed scene between Bachchan and Zinta, where the old actor encourages the diffident model-turned-actress to "throw her voice" towards the mountains across the valley by imagining that the man she is angry at is standing on the other side; a sudden burst of Bengali (“Eta ki fair?!”) in an emotional situation by Harry, who has thus far appeared incapable of speaking or thinking in any language other than English; Harry and Siddharth making up stories for the people they see on the CCTV the old man has installed in his flat; and the sudden transformation of a quiet scene into grand theatre – complete with sound effects evoking a tempest - when Harry declaims Prospero’s lines. I also liked the framing device of the three women sharing their problems, slowly opening up to each other as the night wears on. (Shefali Shah and Preity Zinta are very good in these scenes, but Divya Dutta speaks with exaggerated, meaningful pauses; this is something that occasionally afflicts self-consciously arty cinema - it’s as if talking naturally would be a lowbrow thing to do.)
Pre-release hype told us that The Last Lear marks Bachchan’s career-best performance. Such hype is usually self-defeating, but this really is a role that AB impressively sinks his teeth into. He has a grand old time here, alternating between self-possession and vulnerability, disdain and childlike enthusiasm, snapping “You get samples in a fabric shop, not on the stage!” when asked for samples of his best work, performing the “Once more unto the breach” soliloquy from Henry V. All of it leads up to a key scene where Harry has to abase himself for the integrity of his art – in the end the theatre actor retains his dignity, but at heavy cost, and the movie director has the final say.
The Last Lear is a good enough film to make me wish it had gone further in its reflections on life and art, theatre and cinema, that a stronger connection had been made between Harry’s own life and the role he is playing, and that the characters of Shabnam and Vandana in particular had been more fully explored; what one is left with is snapshots of interesting people whom we would have liked to know better. But even with these limitations, this is an elegant, lovingly made work that deserves to be seen outside the festival circuit and that should be rewarding for an attentive viewer, even one who doesn’t know Oberon from Oberoi.