2005 has thus far been something of an art-house film year in India with the recent release of several Bollywood movies in which singing and dancing have taken a backseat such as the media satire Page 3, the AIDS drama My Brother...Nikhil and, of course, Black - Sanjay Leela Bhansali's follow-up to his 2002 remake of Devdas. But instead of the usual practise of sinking without a trace at the Indian box office, these avant-garde (by Hindi cinema standards) films have actually been making waves and should help Bollywood to evolve and be taken more seriously as a leading industry in world cinema. In the few months since its release, Black has already gained such critical acclaim that there is now serious hope that it may bring India its first Academy Award.
Inspired by the life of Helen Keller and set in post-independence India, Black is the fictional story of Michelle McNally, a blind, deaf and dumb Anglo-Indian born to affluent parents who believe their daughter to be mentally handicapped. They hire specialist teacher Debraj Sahai, an eccentric alcoholic who pledges to stay on the wagon in order to help the young girl. Discovering her not to be retarded, Sahai spends the next thirty years with Michelle teaching her sign language for the blind and eventually sees her into adulthood as she gains entry into a university, studying arts. As a struggling Michelle prepares for a third attempt at passing her exams, however, Debraj walks out of her life after he discovers he has Alzheimer's disease. Years pass, and at age 40, Michelle finally earns her degree in arts and sets off to search for her teacher.
The simply magical Black is a spectacular return to form for writer/director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Bhansali had dealt with deaf characters before in his debut picture Khamoshi (Silence), an excellent and well-acted drama that established him as one of Hindi cinema's top filmmakers. His next two films, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Devdas were both even more successful, but received mixed reviews thanks to a newly-found, suffocating opulence from the director. Black retains that same stylistic direction, but also features the intimacy of Khamoshi that was lacking in 'HDDCS' and Devdas. The result is a haunting, beautiful and moving experience that is a million miles away from your typical masala Bollywood popcorn flick. It is being said that Black may eventually be Bollywood's ticket to mass exposure in the West, but if this is the case, it has in no way gone Hollywood in the process. For despite the abundance of English dialogue and a lack of singing and dancing, Black still feels very much like an Indian movie. Inter-personal relationships, family values and roles in society are all still at the forefront here and the film proves that Indian cinema does have an identity beyond the hackneyed clichés it is so often mocked for.
Black boasts some of the most powerful acting to been seen on India's silver screens in recent years. Rani Mukherji has given a career-best performance as the adult Michelle McNally, a role she has completely immersed herself in. Many of Bollywood's top actors are known for carrying their star personas over into their screen characters – many of their fans expect it of them, in fact – but here, Rani is Michelle with no trace of the sexy glamdoll from 1998's Ghulam or the aspiring lawyer from 2004's Veer-Zaara. Mukherji has long been India's best actress (at least since living legends Madhuri Dixit and Kajol went into premature semi-retirement), but this has rarely been reflected in the quality of her movie offers thanks to her moon-shaped face, plump physique and dark skin – all no-nos in the all-too-often shallow world of Bollywood casting. Thankfully, Black has finally given Rani a proper chance to shine.
63-year-old legend Amitabh Bachchan plays Debraj Sahai and has likewise never been better – an even more impressive feat considering his already God-like status in Indian movies and the plethora of award-winning performances he has given in a career spanning four decades and over 150 films. Even those unfamiliar with Bachchan's work, however, can begin to understand his unrivalled reputation after seeing Black. It really is hard to imagine anyone else being able to give the combined gravitas, dignity, humour and warmth to the role of Sahai that Bachchan has given. Criticisms could be made of his overly theatrical antics in the early part of the film, although it is all true to the quirkiness of his character and he always remains compelling to watch nonetheless. Black could easily be a two-actor show and still be a treat to watch, but all of the supporting cast also enter top-notch performances. In particular, young Ayesha Kapoor who plays the 10-year-old Michelle is outstanding in her believability as the tragically disturbed, confused and reckless little girl.
Black is an exceptionally accomplished piece of work that does the Indian film industry proud. Excluding a tacked-on, predictable subplot involving Michelle's jealous younger sister, the narrative moves smoothly and swiftly, jumping back and forth from the present day to flashbacks all in a coherent fashion. The screenplay is intelligent with just a few instances of unnecessarily long dialogue which still work well enough thanks to the quality of acting. Cinematography is artful and dreamy without being excessive, while everything from the prosthetic make-up to the goose-bump-inducing score by Monty Sharma is all of a high standard. If there was ever a Hindi film with all the tools required to bag that elusive Oscar for Best Foreign Film then Black most certainly is it. Fingers crossed for March 5th, 2006.
After a succession of below-average quality Bollywood DVDs from Yash Raj Films, Black is an improvement, but not a marked one. Like recent YRF discs, the video for this release is an interlaced PAL to NTSC conversion, but it is free from the aliasing and digital artefacts that marred such films as Veer-Zaara and Dhoom. Colour and contrast are excellently rendered with no dirt or speckles to be found and the image is as steady as a rock. On the down side, a lot of edge enhancement is still rearing its ugly head and something Yash Raj just can't seem to get right is the aspect ratio – here it has been cropped from 2.35:1 to around 2.22:1, though thankfully it is framed correctly. The video is anamorphically enhanced.
Another Yash Raj Films DVD trademark makes its presence felt in the sound department – the dreaded pitch correction. This has left the Hindi Dolby Digital 5.1 track with a slightly garbled sound at times. Otherwise, the audio is perfectly fine and clear with no pops, crackles or other such distractions present. Black is not a film that will test the capabilities of your sound system, but Monty Sharma's stirring music does occasionally give all five speakers a good workout.
Extras are few on this rushed DVD release. As expected, the original theatrical trailer is present as well as two TV promos and the original Making Of promotional documentary which runs for 20 minutes. Exclusive to the DVD is 'The Colours of Black', a 20-minute sit-down conversation between director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and stars Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherji. Both featurettes, though nothing out of the ordinary, offer a fair bit of enjoyment.
Subtitles are provided for the movie in English, Spanish, French, Arabic and Hindi, the English subtitles being rather shabby. While there are no spelling or grammar mistakes and the meaning is always intact, the translations themselves are often inaccurate and range from overly grandiose to severely dumbed down. Around 40% of the film's dialogue is in English and unfortunately there is no option to watch the film with only the Hindi-speaking portions subtitled, which can be distracting to say the least. No subtitles are provided for the disc's special features.
If this is the DVD that will be sent to Oscar judges when Black is submitted next year as India's entry for Best Foreign Film, then one hopes that the panel will be able to look beyond the mediocre subtitles and less-than-perfect transfer to see Black for the ray of light that it is. It's a good time for Indian cinema at the moment – let's hope that Indian DVD distributors will show more care for these films in future as well.
Note: Black is also available on DVD in a limited edition set that includes the film's original soundtrack.
9 out of 10
6 out of 10
7 out of 10
4 out of 10