Retrospective: Black

Note: This review was originally written on March 24, 2005, when the film was still playing in the movie halls.

After hearing much hype about Black, its truncated length of two hours (as opposed to three hour bladder busters) and "performances of a lifetime" from Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee, I have to admit I was curious to see whether Sanjay Leela Bhansali had overcome the excesses of Devdas and delivered a taut, art-house type feature. So, we went to see it at the Naz in Fremont on Tuesday. It had been miserably wet in the Bay Area over the past couple of weeks - yet the theater was packed.

blackTheFilm.jpg The storm und drang inside the theater started right from the opening frame and didn't really let up (with a couple of merciful moments), until the very end. I would have been surprised if the projectionist hadn't taken mounds of towels to dry down the film reels before the next showing, so intent was the film in wringing out juice from every scene, every character, every prop. It rained incessantly. It snowed. There was a water fountain in case the first two weather elements didn't come through. The plot? Rani Mukherjee plays Michelle, a blind-mute girl and Amitabh Bachchan is her teacher, who sticks by her despite all the odds. Mr. Bachchan has easily any number of films where he gave performances far superior to this. You only have to look as far as Khakee to see his real ability. Here, his performance becomes a wholehearted tribute to William Shatner - no scenery was left unchewed. As for hers, well it is always tough to evaluate the performance of someone who is playing someone disabled. Play someone like this and the decks are stacked in your favor - but I wasn't sure whether her wild flailings were typical of folks similarly afflicted or because of what the director had deliberately asked her to wildly overact. After all, Sanjay Leela Bhansali did make sure we know of his nod to Charlie Chaplin through her physical performance! And in case we missed the point, a Charlie Chaplin flick plays in the local theater which the characters walk past - I kid you not! But did the film really intend to pay tribute to The Exorcist? It certainly seemed that way, particularly during the younger Michelle's histrionics, rolled eyes and all.

As for trimming down the fat, well, yes there were no songs. But all the other elements of a standard Bollywood masala film were present. The ever present score, replete with deep drums and throaty aahs, hammered away in the background, filling in emotion when the words weren't enough. The gestures were grand, the dialogue grandiose ("it is not the eyes that dream, it is the mind"), the setting a burnished, grand India that really never existed (except as India-on-the-Alps or wherever this film was shot). But I was left wondering - were they substitutes for character development? For effective storytelling? The film is a big hit and so, I suppose it did click with many people. It is being hailed as being Oscar material but I seriously doubt it'll get that far here. Just seems that it's a lot easier to gain audience sympathy if your leading character is disabled in some way. And if you look at past Bhansali productions, a certain pattern arguably does arise in this respect. Khamoshi featured a mute/deaf family. The titular character in Devdas was an emotional cripple - and an alcoholic. Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was the exception and, in my personal opinion, the best thing he's done so far. Anyway, I boldly predict that Mr. Bhansali, for an encore, will do a film featuring a wisecracking (but autistic), gin swigging quadriplegic. Should be a triple hanky feature.

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- July 18, 2005 10:19 PM // Bollywood , Review , Select