To label Black “unusual” would be an understatement: indeed, with his fourth film, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has, to paraphrase the iconic Star Trek cliché, “boldly gone where no Indian film-maker has gone before”. Paradoxically enough, this tale of an Anglo-Indian deaf-blind girl’s peregrination into adulthood, and her relationship with a somewhat eccentric mentor, who, as it turns out, must embrace his own ‘blackness’ as advancing Alzheimer’s corrodes his memory, is a feast for the senses: in his previous film, the extravagant remake of Sarat Chandra’s early twentieth century novella ‘Devdas’ promoted as ‘the costliest Indian movie ever’, Mr Bhansali had exhibited an uncanny penchant for conjuring opulent mise-en-scenes reminiscent of a Raja Ravi Verma canvas (which, this reviewer posits, had the sometimes unfortunate effect of subsuming the characters, even the plot, altogether), but Black artfully balances the visual décor with an intensely poignant narrative, and all-round stellar performances. In Khamoshi [lit: Silence], his first film, silence gave birth to song, in a story about a deaf-mute couple’s daughter’s quest to discover music through love; here, the absences of sound and sight produce a world populated by words, and touch: a celebration of the senses sought in their absences. The circle, it would appear, is complete.
In Black, none of Mr Bhansali’s characters are blessed with heroic gifts: gone are the prodigious songstress of Khamoshi, the pristine, almost divine, beauty of Hum Dil Chuke Sanam, and the doomed melodramatic lover of Devdas; in Black, all Mr Bhansali grants his characters is an extraordinary measure of determination to overcome their all too frail human conditions. Amitabh Bachchan is a ‘pathetic’ singer; Rani Mukherjee is anything but a bella donna. It is refreshing to see how, under this dominating-demanding auteur’s defintive direction, Mr Bachchan- whose angst-ridden portrayals of the ‘angry young man’ stereotype almost two decades ago propelled him to unrivalled superstardom- is stripped of all glamour: in a career spanning over four decades, the Actor- undilutedly fierce in his determination to rescue his protégé from the inevitability of madness and perpetual dependency but also eerily human with his peculiar foibles and quirks- has emerged, perhaps for the first time, and the experience is nothing short of glorious; even Mr Bachchan’s at times over-the-top performance à la Al Pacino- the acerbic one-liners, like when he asks a colleague, who is devotedly putting drops in his eyes, what she sees in them, she replies ‘love’ to which he quips “you must be blind”, or in his letters to her, dictated as sarcastic soliloquies- become inherent to the characterization, as the ‘teacher’ metamorphoses into a ‘magician’.
Ms Mukherjee’s depiction of the deaf-blind girl is at once both heart-wrenching and heart-warming; Jaya Bachchan (then: Bhaduri) had done it once before, in Koshish, again a film about a deaf-mute couple’s romantic devotion for each other, but her’s was an acceptance of fate, not an outright struggle to overcome it. Ms Mukherjee, minus the cosmetic makeup, allows the viewer unbridled access into the brutal intimacies of her black-world: towards the end, as she delivers a ‘speech’ eulogizing her “teacher”, the movement of her fingers, the jerky sways of her frail body and eruptions of expressions on her face make their translation into uttered words meaningless. Here is ‘exposure’ of the supreme kind, which is more than can be said of certain other contemporary starlets. Not surprisingly, Mr Bhansali acknowledges Helen Keller as his inspiration.
The real surprise however is Ayesha Kapur, who plays the young Ms Mukherjee’s character for the first half of the film: she is, quite simply, marvellous. Mr Bhansali’s Simla, where the story unfolds, is not the cluttered city that it has become today, but glows, drenched in deep Oxford tones of the Raj, in ethereal timelessness, almost as if it were a character by itself: relics of another era- enormous Graeco-Roman busts, elaborate paintings done in the style of the Grand Manner, Victorian furnishings, vintage motorcars, wooden staircases, the Gaiety Theatre and the Cathedral restored to their former glory, the Woodwille Palace which serves as Ms Mukherjee’s family home, an Angelic fountain- accentuate visual density and amplify emotional impact, like a Peter Greenway film where each scene of the movie flows from one painting to another (isn’t that why a film is also called ‘motion-picture’?).
What works for the film is not so much the individual performances, or for that matter, the beautifully staged scenes with their complex dance of light and shadows, but the interpersonal bonds that Mr Bhansali’s characters establish among themselves. Themes considered taboo by many- such as the chrysallisation of Ms Mukherjee’s character’s feelings for Mr Bachchan’s character, from devotion to romantic infatuation as she becomes aware of her own sexual needs, and implores him to kiss her on her lips- are tackled with subtle poignancy, hitherto unwitnessed in Bollywood cinema, elevating this student-teacher tale into one of unrequited love, akin to the greatest love stories of any age. In the final scene, the student leads her teacher, now almost totally without recollections, to a window; together they stare-out at the falling snow, all communication limited to the intertwining of their fingers. The world has grown silent again, and another struggle begins.
For Indian Cinema, Black inaugurates the dawn of a new era.
Amit Aishwarya Jogi
Mumbai: February 10, 2005
Sunday, June 04, 2006
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