Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Black review from Outlook

Rani & Amitabh Bachhan gave greatest performances of their lives!!!
Michelle McNally is deaf, blind and mute. She's also a young woman craving a man's love. Would her mentor, Debraj Sahai, a man who has brought meaning and communication into her silent life, also oblige her with a touch of passion?As Michelle pleads meekly, then aggressively demands a kiss from Debraj, you wonder if you're watching a Bollywood film. These are characters, situations and emotions that our dream factory cannot ordinarily conceptualise. Even if it did, there would always have been the danger of the scene descending into crassness.
Instead, filtered through Sanjay Leela Bhansali's vision in Black, it becomes a moving moment, a poignant expression of unorthodox love. And even as Michelle wonders whether physical love is too much to have asked for, the audience's collective heart aches in tandem.
It's not just this one moment; Black is mesmerising Indian viewers. It may well be one of the most celebrated Bollywood films of recent times. It's a unique mainstream film about two physically challenged individuals. Their relationship escapes the burden of pre-defined labels, the film's seasoned actors are made to plumb rare emotional depths and instead of picture-postcard Swiss landscapes the drama unfolds against a complex, unexplored interplay of breathtaking images.
"The film doesn't just set a standard, it defines the laws of filmmaking," says Shahrukh Khan. His hyperbole may not be entirely misplaced. One of the most cinematic films to have come out of Bollywood, Black bucks mainstream Indian filmmaking conventions even as it embraces its essential drama and emotions. "Bhansali has taken a big risk by making a film without the typical Hindi film paraphernalia," says actress Seema Biswas.
It's a simple, songless tale about a blind, deaf-mute girl, Michelle (Rani Mukherjee), whose world gets cheer, joy and hope through her aging, alcoholic, magician of a teacher, Debraj (Big B). From a wild animal, he makes her "a fine young lady"; with the power of touch he fills words into her empty life. Role reversal follows when Debraj himself is struck with Alzheimer's and Michelle has to refill his forgetful world with words and memories, even as she struggles to get a university degree.
This story of courage, struggle and triumph against all odds stakes a serious claim to being called a landmark Indian commercial film, one that could become a must-read chapter in our cinema text-books. For those used to facile Bollywood narratives, Black's layers take time to unravel. "People want to see it again; they can't assimilate it in one go," says filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar.
Yet cinema buffs fed on European arthouse classics may find Black's vision derived (see box). "They've seen it all in the West. There's nothing new it offers," says filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. "It may be a breakthrough film for Indian commercial cinema but it's still sentimental, pretentious," says film critic and columnist Bhaichand Patel.
Equally, this 'inspired' aesthetic itself is making the film an object of academic interest. "Mainstream Hindi cinema has always been inspired by Hollywood. If Black is looking towards European cinema, it will give Bollywood a whole new discourse," says film scholar Shohini Ghosh.
Black also reflects Bhansali's cussed individuality. This filmmaker likes being in complete control. Two years ago, he knew exactly what he was doing to Devdas: taking an intimate tragedy and turning it into a garish spectacle. We hated him then; called his cinema arrogant and self-indulgent, and watched Black with more apprehension than expectation. Here, too, Bhansali works things out carefully, down to the last painting in the McNally house.
But unlike Devdas, it doesn't wallow in sentimental excesses and in-your-face opulence, maintains an emotional coherence while being artistically audacious, a reason why the worst of Bhansali's critics are surprised.
"It's my most positive film, about finding God in human form. I've dealt with a dark theme through the metaphor of sunshine," he says. The result: a highly intense film, but one with little of the cloying melodrama that ruins lesser cinema.
His exploration is through people and relationships that aren't necessarily 'normal'. Each individual comes with frailties, be it the doting, overprotective mother (Shernaz Patel), the irritable father (Dhritiman Chaterji) or the jealous sibling (Nandana Dev Sen). In the Michelle-Debraj equation, anger and violence underline love and affection. Debraj is arrogant, unsparing and neurotic, Michelle is stubborn and temperamental and they clash as much as they dance together in harmony.
Unlike a typical Hindi film, Bhansali doesn't deify his physically challenged heroine, never makes her an object of pity. "She is alive with emotion—anger, violence. She's not ashamed of crying, shouting. She expresses herself completely. That's the real way of living," he says.
Real as these feelings are, they come cloaked in a lyrical sheen of images. "He's the only director in Bollywood with a visual flourish," says Ghosh. "He goes about his visuals in a very planned way, makes no compromises," says Biswas. A reason why cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran calls Black "fiendishly perfect".
In Black, Bhansali deliberately looks West for its muted aesthetics. From the loud, exaggerated Bengal of Devdas, he moves to the quietude of old Anglo-Indian homes of the 1940s in Black. "I didn't even want the roar of Khamoshi's sea. I only wanted snow and silence with one animal screaming away in the stillness," he says.
Bhansali says he tries to make his visual energy stay in tune with the script, enhancing the screenplay and characters. Kryzstof Kieslowski's Three Colours jumps out of his frames as does Guru Dutt. "It's not that I am copying them but about the subconscious impressions of those films in my mind," he explains.
Black is significant because within our story-oriented mainstream cinema Bhansali deals with complex imagery and metaphors. Take the scene in which servants are emptying Michelle's father's study of all its art to create a new environment for her. It's a cinema built on the overwhelming theatricality of the visuals. They don't just tell a story; they create experiences in viewers—of hopelessness as Debraj begins teaching the wild Michelle, and of triumph when she touches water in a fountain and speaks her first word.His actors found themselves driven by the energy inherent in their characters. Apart from the rigour of learning sign language, Black made them stretch their artistic vocabulary. Debraj is something Bachchan had never attempted before. "I was told to interpret him as this eccentric, crabby guy. He moves to great highs and total lows emotionally," says Bachchan. In his first scene, you find him acting flamboyantly with his back to the camera letting his limbs do all the talking, the excessive gesticulation highlighting his jaunty persona. Another moment you catch a fleeting look of appreciation as his pupil plays with new friends at college.
Similarly, there's Rani's wonderfully animated face as her Michelle dances to a song she can't hear or the bewilderment as she faces up to the fact that Debraj may not be a part of her life forever.
See too how Bhansali makes the two lead actors perform in consonance. In the dinner scene where Debraj reads out Michelle's speech celebrating the impending marriage of sister Sara, the drama emerges from the interplay of Rani's expressions and Bachchan's voice."It's like a wonderful duet, as though they are dancing in sync," says Bhansali. "The acting of Rani and Amitji is an education for all actors," says SRK.
Another unique triumph comes from child actor Ayesha Kapur. The ten-year-old from Pondicherry—a Kapur of Indo-German parentage—was discovered by casting director Amita Saigal. Bhansali had liked her body language, but wasn't sure if she looked enough like a young Rani. As little Michelle, she also had to bring alive the void of Michelle's life—a remote, isolated and hence wild animal- like existence. As it turned out, she pulled it off—spectacularly. "She had the body language, she is an adventurous child of nature. Her performance laid the foundation for Rani to build on," says Bhansali.
And, Black is a film for Bhansali to build on. For now, despite his tempestuous and restless persona, he is happy to have been appreciated. Will Black, with its Rs 21.5 crore budget, reach out to the box office as well? The producers, Applause Entertainment, are optimistic. For them, Bhansali's craft has already brought a lot of value on the table. "Not only does he have a huge vision and canvas but also the ability to translate the vision into reality," says CEO Anshumaan Swami.
Perhaps, Black needs to be seen in a singular context, that of the Bollywood assembly line. See it a week after Blackmail and Padmashree Laloo Prasad Yadav and you realise what separates the ambitious from the timid, the mature from the mundane. It's then that the box office ceases to matter, if only for a brief while.
(Anil and Kini, I tried giving the link but for that you have to subscribe for Outlook India, hence the long post. Anil welcome welcome, to your forefinger. I just wanted everyone to know that its a movie one should not miss)


Anil 9:16 AM, February 27, 2005  

saaale, thank god I don't have to scroll through that 'how to waste your time in 1000 different ways' piece of shit... but I am sure you have written something good.. but the beer+scotch-on-the-rocks+screwdriver in me doesn't allow me to read it properly... will read it when I am sober enough... zindagi rahegi toh milenge baar baar.. warna milenge haridwaar.. I think you only said this once.. long long time ago in kharagpur... khuda haafiz, al vidaa.. g**** maraa.. I am ladkhadaa...

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