The Last Lear, directed by Rituporno Ghosh is what I’d describe as a great idea that doesn’t quite translate into a great film.
An adaptation of a play by Utpal Dutt, The Last Lear uses the film-within-a-film device to tell the story of Harish Mishra or Harry, an ageing theatre actor played by Amitabh Bachchan who knows Shakespeare off the top of his head, and who’s persuaded by hotshot new-age film director Siddharth (played by Arjun Rampal) to perform his first ever film role as an old, disfigured clown.
Harry struggles with the cinematic process, but finds refuge in dispensing acting tips to his co-star Shabnam (played by Preity Zinta), with whom he gradually develops a warm friendship.
Despite its terrific narrative style, there’s much about the plot of The Last Lear that feels unnecessarily contrived. Like the revelation about how Harry is injured that is too far-fetched to believe. Or even the unconvincing explanation provided for Harry pulling out of a production of King Lear just days before the performance and going into voluntary retirement overnight.
But it’s really the film’s snail-like pace and the stodgy direction that comes in the way of this film realising its full potential. The script wastes too much time before establishing the characters and their relationships; and long silences, pregnant pauses and affected performances by the supporting cast only makes the pace slower.
Yet, there is so much to appreciate about The Last Lear; some remarkably written scenes for one. Like the first meeting between Harry and the journalist which ends with the thespian chasing after the hack when the latter displays complete ignorance of even basic literature. Or the scene in which Harry teaches Shabnam to channel her anger into her performance, and proceeds to show her how to effectively throw her voice.
Or then that scene in which Harry grumbles when he discovers that a scene he prepared for extensively has been cut off from the script, and unconsciously delivers a perfect take. It’s moments like these which invigorate the often dull screenplay.
Like with most of his films, director Rituparno Ghosh casts his leads against type and extracts intuitive performances from each. Preity Zinta gets through her scenes competently, never allowing her cute-as-a-button image to take away from the impact she makes here as a conflicted, mature woman.
Arjun Rampal shines as the guilt-ridden filmmaker, too ashamed to even apologise for his selfishness. Shefali Shah, as the irritable homemaker, is incredible in the manner she goes from spiteful to soothing in her dealing with the nurse and the guest who enter her home. But at the heart of the film is Harry, and an extraordinary performance by Amitabh Bachchan.
Whether he’s bellowing those soliloquies or begging his director to allow him to perform his own stunt, Bachchan delivers a measured performance every step of the way. There’s a very good chance he’ll be accused of hamming, but look closely and you’ll notice his performance in The Last Lear is true in every individual moment, and yet, slyly quietly over-the-top in its cumulative effect.
But because of its languid pace and its needlessly heavy-handed direction, The Last Lear is ultimately only half-good. It’s a film that achieves only part of its potential. I’m going with two out of five for director Rituparno Ghosh’s The Last Lear – muster up the patience and give this film a chance. There’s thought gone into every scene, even if it’s sometimes a little too much thought.