Twisted Cinema

Friday, October 20, 2006

It's bleak for Bhansali's Black

Funny that the movie went on to win a slew of Filmfare and other awards. And SL Bhansali as heralded as the best thing to happen to Indian cinema. Still have nothing personal against his films and still stick to what I had to say back then....

Movie name: Black
Director: Sanjay Leela Bhansali
Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Rani Mukerji, Ayesha Kapur
Rating: ** 1/2
Plot: Eight-year-old Michelle is uncontrollable because she cannot communicate – she is blind and deaf and consequently, mute. In comes teacher Sahai who turns her life around.
Setting: An Anglo-Indian house in Shimla.

Black was one of the most awaited movies of 2005, not so much as a film that could bail Bollywood out of its cashless doldrums, but as the work of a director known for his visual, monetary and emotional extravagance. While Black – unlike a Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam or a Devdas – is not exploding with colours, the director does not let his brush rest just yet. The difference this time around is that Bhansali swathes the canvas with the deeper, darker hues of his palette. There are no fuchsias or turquoises, but there is rich chocolate brown, matted blues and blood-clot maroons. The smart filmmaker that Bhansali is, he takes his protagonists and us to the late '40s or early '50s, so that the colours, costumes and props blend with the era to make everything look delectably quaint. The costumes comprise frilly collars, buttoned-to-the-neck, elbow-length blouses, checkered blazers and all. The props include ornate woodwork, busts and statues, screens and section partitions with Biblical themes and wooden house floors that are waxed daily. Butlers and a house- keeper complete the picture. Yet another favourite trick of Bhansali is to make his characters belong to one particular ethnicity to be able to play around with the foibles of that particular people.
There was the Gujarati family in Hum Dil... , the Bengali traditions in Devdas . In Black , he goes back to his Christian family we were first introduced to in Khamoshi . It's just that the family is now based in Simla than in Goa – perhaps because white snow complements the movie's theme better than sandy beaches would have? Visually, Black does not disappoint. A little, adult Michelle McNally (Rani), evokes a certain protectiveness when you see her ambling down the cobbled lanes of a supposed Simla in a very obviously Chaplin-esque walk. There is a scene where a poster of a Chaplin film and Rani are shown in the same frame to make sure the point or poignancy is not lost: A perfect instance of directorial gimmickry at work. Another illustration of an affected directorial attempt is the eccentricity of each character. There is kooky teacher Mr Debraj Sahai (Bachchan) with his militant belief that he can illuminate Michelle's black existence. The equally militant father (Dhritiman Chatterjee) who wants to tie a bell around Michelle's waist and wants nothing to do with the brusque Sahai. The overly emotional mother (Shernaz Patel) who feels and cries so much for her first born that she ignores her second daughter (Nandana Deb Sen). But despite the eccentricities, the characters are sketchy.

Except perhaps for Michelle, and we don't mean Rani. It's child artiste Ayesha Kapur who plays the eight-year-old Michelle who strikes a chord with the audience, who brings out the helplessness of a child who is otherwise healthy but cannot communicate with anyone.
Ayesha is brilliant and that's an understatement. The best scenes in the movie are between her and Bachchan and she steals the scene. But why was she not spoken about as much as the other stars in the movie? Was it a deliberate move? Was she supposed to be the surprise element of the movie? We don't know. What we do know is that the star of the movie is not Bhansali, Bachchan or Rani – it is Ayesha.

Rani's performance has been much written about even before anyone saw the movie. She did cut a diminutive yet striking picture with the cap, the structured black outfits and of course the no make-up look. But we have a question. Would this performance have been touted so much had it not been Rani – an otherwise 'glamorous and commercial' actress - doing the role? What if it was a rank newcomer? How much of our reaction to Rani as Michelle is based or biased on the fact that we are seeing a popular actress leave the pan cake and use the white stick instead? Each time Aishwarya, Tabu, Sushmita, Kareena and other 'alluring' actresses go the 'no make up' way, their performances are strangely supposed to be good. But perhaps generalising is being unfair to Rani. It is unusual and unusually daring for an actress to not just leave the safety of her already formed and loved image, but to play a blind-deaf-mute person as well. It's an A+ plus for Rani for taking on the challenge. But where Michelle the child makes you sit up and notice, Rani as Michelle the adult does not inspire, motivate or move.

Bachchan as Sahai left us discontented as well. He provides for some light moments in the film, his fanaticism comes through, but the basis of his zealous interest in the little girl's case is lost in the drama. As for the 'older' Sahai in the latter part of the movie – if Shah Rukh Khan was intolerable as the grey-haired Veer in Veer-Zaara , Bachchan as the ailing, octogenarian in Black is atrocious. We have seen better from you, sir. Black was perhaps supposed to be the tale of a student who does not have light in her life and her teacher who is looking for light in his life.
Sahai's aim in life is to make Michelle 'normal', to get her to become a graduate from a regular college. But there are unnecessary subplots that irritate and make us want to scream out, Mr Bhansali, just tell us their story please. We don't want to know about the insecurities of her sibling, we don't want to see Sahai lose his memory, we just want to see Michelle triumph. though she does triumph after labouring for long years, the significance of the moment is lost because Bhansali needlessly introduces Alzheimer's and a summary of the entire movie in the form of a graduation speech.

Much like Nana Patekar's sign-language speech in Khamoshi , Rani's graduation 'speech' is more to make the audience stand-up and applaud rather than to add to the story. And then of course there is the excessive use of English, which almost makes this an English film with a couple of dialogues in Hindi. An attempt to be 'international' perhaps? Sanjeev Kumar and Jaya Bhaduri riveted us without words in the original Koshish . Kamal Haasan made us laugh aloud with his silent Pushpak . But Black with its constant background narration seems affected. The posters had given us goose bumps and hope; we came in wanting to be inspired, to be touched, Black did neither


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