India Uncut

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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Let’s try again. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black

Sorry for that.

I had both low and high expectations when I went to see Black. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s last film, Devdas, I thought, exemplified the very worst of Bollywood. Many of the things that typify Bollywood were taken to an unbearable extreme in that: melodrama, opulence, and Shah Rukh Khan’s hammacious acting. But Black’s promos looked promising, and the reviews were great. Could it be that bad? Could it be that good?

It fell in between. Well, actually, closer to black. It was overblown and melodramatic, and featured outrageous overacting from Amitabh Bachchan, who played a caricature, not a man. It is an excellent sign of the times that such strong roles exist for a man of his age, and they wouldn’t have 30 years ago. But he was far better in Baghban, where he acted with sensitivity and restraint. Here, he was way over the top. Blame the director for that.

The film was beautifully shot, but had far more style than substance. In fact, the style detracted from the substance. The screenplay wasn’t bad at all, though the dialogues could have been more realistic, and Black could have been a wonderful film had it been made with more realism. For Bhansali, though, every frame is an aesthetic opportunity, and when that’s the way you make films, the whole is always lesser than the sum of its parts.

The film takes on a tough challenge. Depicting the human condition is hard enough, and the deaf-and-blind condition is monstrously harder. But rather than get into the skin of his subject, Bhansali paints it up. The blindness in the film is romanticised, the deafness is covered up with excessive, and manipulative, music. I’m not recommending a no-music-no-lights Dogme 95 approach to film-making, but a director must respect his viewers and, as has been the tradition of bad Hindi cinema, Bhansali does not respect us. Every frame, every snatch of music, exists to manipulate an emotion out of us, and at every step Bhansali tells us what to think. He does this masterfully, but it’s not the kind of cinema I like to watch, and is regressive for an industry that aspires to gain a global audience, as opposed to an expatriate one.

Rani Mukherjee acts well in the film, and so does the beautiful Shernaz Patel, but both of them overplay certain scenes. They are both director’s actors, though, and clearly just played out Bhansali’s grandiose vision. Those who like that kind of cinema, and especially those who enjoyed Devdas, will find watching Black a worthwhile experience. The rest of us will wait our day. Or watch Amu again. Now, that’s great Indian cinema.
amit varma, 3:20 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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