Saturday, November 18, 2006

Black (2005)

Black (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2005)

To say that Black is a departure for director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is somewhat of an inaccuracy. Bhansali has already tackled the plight of people with disabilities in his debut feature Khamoshi: A Musicale (1996). While it is true that Black lacks the long song and dance numbers that distinguish Bollywood cinema, the film is as Bollywood as Bollywood can be; and it is also as much a Bhansali film as the opulent remake of Devdas (2002) is. The sets here seem to be a continuation of the opulent and empty halls of Devdas' period drama --- The palatial mansion of the McNally's, the university premises, even the teacher's darkened room, these places all resemble stages rather than true places that exist in pre-Independence India.

It is probably the excesses of Bhansali's cinematic style that prove to be Black's stumbling ground. There is not a tinge of poverty, of class struggle, or even of cultural distinction in the film; which might be in tune with Bhansali's wishes of making a universal film with universal themes. I thought it was a tad overdone. With all of Black's emotional power, there's always that lingering sense of unreality that keeps you from truly appreciating the film.

If there's one thing that keeps Black from stinking like a Hollywood (thus, dishonest) tearjerker is that Bhansali professes a sincere love for the characters he has concocted and the plights and conflicts he has infused them with. Michelle McNally (Rani Mukherjee, young Michelle is portrayed with a heartbreaking pathos by Ayesha Kapur) was born blind and deaf. Her father (Dhritiman Chaterji) has given up on her while her; he lets her eat like an animal, attaches a cowbell on her hip, again, like a pet rather than a daughter. Her mother (Shernaz Patel) is depicted with a lot more compassion; she looks at her child with a maternal concern that is most of the time, as powerful as it is overacted. The film however belongs to the character of Mr. Sahai, the alcoholic teacher who puts all his faith, his talent, and his life to make sure that Michelle learns how to live normally with her disabilities. The teacher is played with lively zeal by Bollywood veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan; Bachchan never descends to the silliness that made Robin Williams' professor in Dead Poet's Society (Peter Weir, 1989) a tedious presence, but instead incorporates a surprising restraint and ultimately human face to the deteriorating character.

Black, with all its faults and excesses, is still heaps and bounds above your Oscar-baiting Hollywood tearjerker. It's unembarrassed by its obviousness; each scene that begs for your tears is accompanied by the most poetically heart-tugging of dialogues and the most heightened of musical orchestrations. While I can smell a scene that undeservedly pushes its audience to tears with technical gimmickry instead of the material's true humanity (I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson, 2001) comes to mind), Black does its emotional whoring with both technical gimmickry (Bollywood does like to do everything with a bang, tearjerking included) and the fact that the story, the characters, their plights which are piles upon piles, are infused with bonafide sincerity.

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