4 stars. Black. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. With Amitabh Bachchan, Rani Mukherji, Ayesha Kapur, Shernaz Patel, Dhritiman Chatterjee, Nandana Sen. 

When one hears the name Sanjay Leela Bhansali, words like epic, colorful and majestic come to mind. His films like Devdas, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Khamoshi were all filmed on that scale. Black, while reatining some of his trademark style is a more personal and smaller film.

Bhansali tells the story of Michelle Mcnally (played by Rani Mukherji and Ayesha Kapur at different ages) who is born blind and deaf, therefore developing a speech impediment as well. The film focuses on her relationship with her teacher Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan), whose mission it becomes to integrate her into society in order to live as normal a life as possible. As the years pass by, the two become intertwined in each other’s lives and develop a deep and meaningful relationship. When Sahai succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, it is Michelle’s turn to ensure that he is stll able to live a life filled with dignity. If you do not shed a tear at the pain and suffering shared by Michelle and her family due to the lack of understanding of her disablities, then you have a heart of stone. Unlike other Indian film directors, Bhansali does not manipulate you into feeling sad, but rather lets the realism of the situation take centre stage.

Black is infused with a fairy tale like quality, replete with characters who despite being realistic are also larger than life, a story that despite depicting a life filled with sorrow also shows us that life can be lived with love and joy, no matter our situation. Bhansali always paints images on a large canvas and here he is at the top of his game, ably assisted by cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran in filling each frame with the finesse one is accustomed to when watching his films.

His one failing though, which is evident in his other films, is not being able to restrain himself or his performers from going over the top. While in this film it is less so , it is distracting nevertheless. Bachchan, in particular, is guilty of this in his opening scene, but more than redeems himself as the film progresses. The art direction by Omang Kumar is excellent. The film is set in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, Bhansali doesn’t make a clear reference to a specific year, but it is definitely a period film. Here again, Bhansali errs in making the film too picture perfect. While the Indian town of Simla is amazingly recreated, the sets look pristine clean as if the town had just been built, which is obviously not the case. This too is a distraction. Some of the scenes look very theatrical, as if we are watching a filmed play, which also takes away from the overall enjoyment. Finally, the relevance of making Michelle walk in a Charlie Chaplin like manner is lost on me. Bhansali even goes as far as showing her walk past a cinema playing a Chaplin film, just to make sure the reference is not lost.

While this critique might seem like nitpicking, it is important to note that Bhansali is a talented filmmaker and therefore one expects that when he makes a film as fine as this one, he should not commit basic errors.

This is no Bollywood film, on the contrary, it is an Indian film with no songs, with a running time of less than two hours and a liberal smattering of English dialogue. But let that not put off die hard Bollywood fans. Watch this film, if only to see the Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan in a role that he has described as his best performance ever (I agree) and the talented Rani Mukherji perform in a way you’ve never seen her do before. Watch Black and be mesmerised at the talent of the young actress Ayesha Kapur, who outshines the experience of the aforementioned actors. Watch Black and appreciate the artistry of Bhansali, errors not withstanding, unfold on the screen. Black is a film the Indian film industry can be proud of and is certainly a classic in its own right.

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    Mehboob Bawa is an actor, producer, writer, voice artiste and Bollywood specialist. He covers the Bollywood scene for The Cape Times, the morning daily newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa.


    July 2011