Great actors do that. Amitabh Bachchan is better than great.
We've known this for decades, as he's obviously long been at the point where nothing he does professionally will ever take away from one of the most remarkable careers in all cinema. The inverse doesn't hold true, of course, i.e. he can certainly continue to add to it all. We know better. So it's hardly surprising that he take on the challenging Paa (forget the mannerisms including voice, how does allocating three to four hours per day to brilliant prosthetic makeup sound?) and not only transform himself completely, but assume the role of his character to the extent we don't get to see Amitabh at all, but get to sense his presence and the brand of cinema he's notorious for -- core Bollywood, this.
Here's the plot synopsis from the official website:
Auro (Amitabh Bachchan) is an intelligent and witty 13-year-old boy with an extremely rare genetic defect that causes accelerated aging. He suffers from a progeria-like syndrome. Mentally he is 13, very normal, but physically he looks five times older. In spite of his condition, Auro is a very happy boy. He lives with his mother Vidya (Vidya Balan) who is a gynecologist. Amol Arte (Abhishek Bachchan) is young, progressive and a full-of-ideals politician. He is out to prove to the world that 'politics' is not a bad word. He is a man with a mission. Auro is Amol's son. Paa is a rare story about a father-son, son-father relationship.
The only thing missing in this synopsis is that Auro being a happy child is a direct result of his relationship with his maa, which is as substantive to the film than his relationship with his paa. It works to the advantage of the film. Vidya is in fine form as ever, and I'm happy to say she is back to her strong suit, for which I am very excited. (I was afraid she'd lost her way since the annoying Heyy Babyy (2007) and frustrating Kismat Konnection (2008), both ordinary at best.) It's refreshing to see a character such as hers with as prominent a role -- resolute but kind, confident and humble, contemporary and 'modern', with a tasteful, modest sense of dress. Methinks she's right up there with Gayatri Joshi of Swades (2004) for my most admirable contemporary Indian woman in a film. The wardrobe and styling do her justice, and she's always had sheer class as an actor. Hubba hubba!
Don't let this frame fool you. The film might be predictable (core Bollywood, told ya!), but the characters often aren't.
I've liked Abhishek Bachchan's selection of films of late (first Delhi-6 (2009), then this!), but wish the same could be said about his performances. He's not bad at all here. (Really liked his wardrobe, too.) It's just quite obvious a better actor would've been better for the film. But then, it's easy to see why a father and son would want to reverse roles in a film produced by their banner, so without both, the film would likely not have been made. (And a film such as this deserves to be made.) Which also leads one to appreciate Vidya's casting instead of Aishwarya Rai. Paa's relationship with his paa (Paresh Rawal) is well-chronicled.
Father and son clearly had a blast working in this!
Amitabh is just sensational as Auro, and what he has pulled off here is a spectacular achievement no matter how one looks at it, the stature of the Bachchan notwithstanding. His interactions with his grandmother, school principal, friends, 'driver' (chauffer), and others, are intricately weaved into the plot and sensitively portrayed. It's a sheer joy to see him surround the screen with pleasant aura that few if any can lend to this character. The film is worth watching for him alone.
That's not to say there isn't more that makes it worthwhile. The background score (Ilaiya Raja) is simply delightful. The supporting cast, which includes Paresh Rawal and Arundathi Nag, are brilliant. Overall direction (R. Balakrishnan) is fine, the art direction and makeup are the strongest. (Contrast the scene in which Amol checks out Auro's room, with the one in Taare Zameen Par (2007), in which Ishaan's teacher checks out the child's room.)
What hurts by quite a bit are the haphazard integration of a good soundtrack (Ilaiya Raja, lyrics by Swanand Kirkire), dialogue that could have been refined some more (the choice of words in many instances did not lend itself to the situations), and the kind of senselessness no prominent, rational, politician or even businessperson would resort to for the stake of stranger (if you've seen the film, you know Amol is both prominent and supposedly rational; think a day in Delhi.) Together, they manage to make this less than a brilliant film.
Thankfully, there's one brilliant performance that towers above everything else. Watch this for Amitabh and fine performances by most of the rest, especially Vidya Balan. It's a heartwarming film which is also very entertaining. There's none who's mastered the art of this brand of cinema better, and it's on fine display. Here's a promo; check out Amitabh at the very end of the clip:
Movie rating: 3.75/5 (Very good!)
Don't miss it! Despite its flaws (writing, soundtrack integration), it's worth checking out. Clearly one of the best films of the year, in what is an amazing effort.
Music rating: 3/5 (Good)
Great background score, and good music (listen at this link) that could have been better-integrated. I hope this is finally Shilpa Rao's coming out party. For someone who has done few but only fine songs in her career (The Train (2007), Gandhi My Father (2007), Aamir (2008), Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Dev.D (2009)), it's about time she be given a chance to make it to the top tier alongside Shreya Ghosal and Sunidhi Chauhan.
My classification: PG
The audience at the cinema was indicative of this, with ages six through sixty represented well.
Official website (and picture source): PaaTheFilm.com
About Progeria at the Progeria Research Foundation.
Video from the truly grand premiere (Disclaimer: Look out for Juhi Chawla!)
There's this song Duniya Ka Mazaa Le Lo (Take the world for a ride/lit. Enjoy the world) in Bahaar (1951) starring Vijayanthimala, which also says, "Duniya ko laat maaro duniya salaam kare" (Neglect the world and it'll salute you/lit. kick the world and it says salaam in return). I think the Bachchans have, for once in a long time, managed to do that to the media and critics. The media are the big villain in Paa, and it's amusing to see Abhishek thank the critics and media personnel who seem to really like this film. Might be some reverse psychology at work. As Auro would say, "Round, and round, and round..." :)