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Black - Restrained, but not enough: Review

Undoubtedly, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest Hindi (with a fair sprinkling of English) film, “Black” (released in Madras on February 4 2005), is the best from the director’s collection. But that is saying very little, for Bhansali has this terrible weakness to fill his cinematic canvas with bright colours and mesmerizing gloss. I remember his earlier, “Devdas”, which had opulent sets, difficult-to-believe situations and an ethereal mood that more than marred a great piece of fiction, written by a Bengali novelist, who was more keen on documenting a certain aspect of society rather than just narrating a story.

Bhansali is certainly far more restrained with “Black”, but his tendency to view cinema as some kind of tamasha leads to an exaggerated style of acting, the use of actors as mere embellishments, and a choice of locales that merely give a picture postcard effect rather than adding to the appeal of the movie or helping build characters.

Amitabh Bachchan‘s characterization as a teacher specialising in handicapped children often appears hollow: I could not figure out what was Debraj Sahai’s (Bachchan) interest (or even compulsion) in spending years and years with Michelle Mcnelly (Rani Mukhejee), who becomes blind and deaf after a childhood illness. “Black” never addresses this aspect with any clarity.

 Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee

Worse still, there are errors in the script. Why does Michelle, who seems remarkably intelligent during her interview for college admission, take a couple of decades to graduate? She does so when she is 40. In the beginning we are given to understand that it is her inability to use the Braille typewriter with some decent speed that impedes her progress. Later, we see her getting over this handicap, and yet the university degree appears to be eluding her.

Bhansali’s “Black” centers on Michelle’s terrifying challenges, which she overcomes with the help of the kind teacher, Sahai, who initially fights an uphill battle to convince her parents (the father especially, played by the veteran Bengali actor, Dhritiman Chatterjee.) that the little girl need not end up in a mental asylum. There is drama at other levels as well that often borders on the emotional: the sibling rivalry between Michelle and Sara (Nandana Sen) and the attachment that Michelle begins to feels for her old teacher.

Bachchan injects a sense of comedy into his otherwise staid part, though I wish that he would have refrained himself from the overstated indulgences he lets himself into. Mukherjee was different, shorn of the glamour we usually associate her with. While those scenes that require her to portray frustrated anger look impressive enough, I was clearly disappointed with her when she was called upon to convey the horrible pain of not being able to see or hear.

However, “Black” surely belongs to nine-year-old Ayesha Kapoor, who acts the young Michelle and remains on the screen for a good 50 minutes, roughly half the length of the film. She is half German, and not handicapped, we are told, and yet performs with an unbelievable touch of brilliance. Here, I would unhesitatingly give a part of the credit to Bhansali.

“Black” is worth watching for Ayesha’s playacting, and as Bachchan says in one of his lines, “life is an icecream, enjoy it before it melts away”, the movie dissolves into the mundane when Michelle grows up: we feel she does too quickly, not giving us enough time to savour some wonderful sequences. We are left with a sense of disappointment.

(Posted on this website on February 6 2005)

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