Mumbai: Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan’s new film The Last Lear opens on Friday, the latest in a string of English language movies to hit the screens as Indian cinema explores new themes and content.
Based on Utpal Dutt’s Bengali play Aajker Shahjahan (Today’s Shahjahan), Bachchan, 66, plays Harry, a retired, silver-haired Shakespearean actor who yearns to play the English playwright’s tragic hero King Lear.
Told in flashbacks as he is gravely ill, the idiosyncratic Harry rails against the modern world, praising theatre over cinema as a young director tries to get him to act in a film for the first time.
The film, first shown to critical acclaim at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, is a far cry from Bollywood’s usual formula of lavish, set-piece Hindi song and dance routines.
It is Bachchan’s first full-length feature film in English in his glittering four-decade-long career.
Yet its release comes amid controversy. On Wednesday, the Mumbai premiere was pulled by organizers on security grounds because of vandalism at the cinema where it was due to be held.
It came after a right-wing politician accused Bachchan’s wife, Jaya, of insulting Marathi, by saying she preferred to speak in Hindi.
Bachchan tried to concentrate on the film at a news conference on Wednesday evening, repeating that he regretted any offence caused but it was unintentional.
On the film’s language he said: “It was deliberate to do this in English because the subject concerned a Shakespearean actor and English is the language of Shakespeare.”
Even though the popularity here of song, dance and romance masala movies is unlikely to fade anytime soon, Bollywood watchers believe that Bachchan’s involvement could prompt more film-makers to follow suit.
The Last Lear is the latest in a line of home-made English-language films.
They include the dark family comedy Being Cyrus and Everybody Says I’m Fine, about the hidden lives of people who use a Mumbai hairdresser.
On Bachchan’s film, film critic and industry analyst Taran Adarsh said: “It’s a complete departure from the normal Hindi films that we’ve been making.”
“I think it might trigger a trend but it’s too early to say. I certainly feel that it’s a step in the right direction.”
“This is still a very small market that’s growing. But when you get big stars like this coming and acting in these kind of films the market is bound to grow.”
Bollywood English-language films come as the corporate sector becomes increasingly involved in the $2.1-billion-a-year (Rs9,534 crore) industry, revamping the way it operates and which markets it targets.
Film’s director Rituparno Ghosh has struck an optimistic note, saying he was sure the formula would work and demonstrate how far non-Hollywood, English language films could go in India.