Learn how to say “Oscar” in sign language because Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black could be India’s winning ticket at next year’s Academy Awards. Rarely is a film of such sensitivity, precision and elegance made in India. Exploring the world of the deaf is not new territory for Bhansali (recall his first movie, Khamoshi-The Musical), but this time he engages himself and his audience in the life of a deaf and blind woman: her goals, her failures, her triumphs, her emotions, and her teacher. The teacher who lived for her and the teacher for whom she lived. Indeed, Black echoes the life of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, but Bhansali makes it his own. In essence, Black is dark but it is purely vibrant cinema.
Black spans almost fifty years of the life of Michelle McNally (portrayed as a child by Ayesha Kapoor and as a woman by Rani Mukerji) who is born deaf and blind. Like other children she wants to play and be mischievous but cannot express herself or understand what is being communicated to her, thus releasing her frustrations in violent tantrums.
In her life enters a teacher for the blind and deaf, Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan). He is an alcoholic who has never been able to attain the success he wants in training blind and deaf children. His initial triumphs in teaching the uncouth Michelle inspire him to take the girl by the hand and make her a productive and proactive person and contributor to society-he wants her to go college, a college for the general public, and get her Bachelor’s in Arts.
But life plays a peculiar game with Michelle and Debraj, with Debraj losing his entire memory to Alzheimer’s disease and Michelle taking it upon herself to teach him all that he ever taught her.
Where does one begin when discussing Black? To what previous Bollywood ventures can one make a parallel? In terms of story, I don’t think one really can compare this movie to any other. Sure there have been a host of movies that deal with the disabled, but they have been about mental disabilities. Indian cinema and the Indian status quo have a stereotype as to what a disability “should” be. Some mannerisms of Mukerji and many of Kapoor mimic characters who suffer from mental disabilities, but Bhansali explicates the difference-just because people with mental disadvantages and people with impaired senses might act the same, doesn’t mean they are to be treated the same.
Black can be looked at through two perspectives: commercial and cinematic. I fail to see how a movie like Black could succeed at the Box Office in India. Being set in an Anglo-Indian environment in what seems to be the post-independence era, Black has a fair dosage of English, which will repel those with limited comfort with the language.
Moreover, the movie is real to a fault. Without indulging too much into details, Black denotes every aspect of Michelle’s character, and one scene in particular might not please the audience. The taming of the young Michelle is immensely intriguing, but saddening and disturbing as well. Is Indian cinema ready for something so real but bleak? Based on the successes and failures of recent films, the answer is an obvious no.
But it is the realism that keeps you glued to the screen as you relish each dialogue, each sign-spoken word, each facial expression-everything about Black is enthralling! The sets and colours may seem a bit emphasised, but the costumes and casting are all ingeniously authentic.
As a director, Sanjay Leela Bhansali has perfected his best work, Khamoshi. He even tells the story as a flashback, showing childhood and adulthood of his main character. But the resemblances end here. He lends himself to the demands of the story and does not get caught in a wave of nostalgia by recreating a similar movie. Each scene is given the utmost sincerity and each character is etched with the finest characterisation.
The screenplay is a factor that I can see being subject to debate. Personally, I found it appropriately paced (but some might find it slow and dragging) and nothing seemed to be out of place-except for one thing: the character of Sara, Michelle’s younger sister, played by Nandana Sen. Her presence seems forced into the screenplay and caters to the cliché of jealousy of the disadvantaged sibling. Sara’s wedding leads up to the best scene of the movie, but I feel that could have been achieved through other means-but perhaps it might not have had the same affect. Sara’s character could stand for the social obstacles faced by those in Michelle’s situation, and is thus an important part of the film. Thus the debate that will surround Black’s screenplay; decide for yourself.
The great thing about Black is that it’s difficult to determine a definite “lead” role of the film. Yes, the movie is told from the point of view of Michelle and is about her fulfilling her goals, but what about the achievements of Debraj and that Michelle getting her degree is his dream, too?
Therefore, as essentially equal contributors to the film, Rani Mukerji and Amitabh Bachchan give their career-best performances. Whatever Mukherji says in the film is the subconscious of Michelle; she doesn’t actually mouth any lines in Black, but has never been more expressive. Her body language, particularly her walk, is spectacular. She could have easily gone over the top but manages to restrain herself. She strays from the lost look most actors give such characters. This is not the Rani Mukerji of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Hum Tum, or Veer-Zaara. This is a side to Rani Mukerji that I was unaware of-what other actress could have portrayed Michelle McNally with the same grace?
Amitabh Bachchan is just brilliant. His character demanded eccentricity and he delivers! As Michelle’s pillar of support, Bachchan’s depiction of Debraj Sahai compliment’s Rani Mukerji perfectly. The gradual dominance of Alzheimer’s disease is most natural and the scenes in which Debraj is taken over by the disease show the real talent within the Big B. Honestly, you’re at a loss for superlatives.
Ayesha Kapoor is simply put, out of this world. I was unable to determine whether she is an actress or actually deaf and blind! There are actors in Bollywood who have been around for many years, many of them so-called “stars” that could not execute a performance half as good as that of Kapoor.
As Michelle’s parents, Shernaz Patel is perfect as the mother, and Dhritiman Chatterjee as the stubborn father is great. Nadana Sen definitely makes her presence felt in her debut, but we need to see more of her know what she’s got.
It’s early in 2005, but the awards for Best Actor (Bachchan), Actress (Mukerji), and Supporting Actress (Kapoor) and Direction (Bhansali) ought to be in the bag for Black. Let’s hope that the arrival of some completely commercial, masala flick that is a hit because of star value (ie: Main Hoon Na) doesn’t cast a black shadow over this powerful and intelligent movie. If there’s any movie you see this year, make sure it’s Black.