ChiaroscuroI watched the movie making all the news i.e. Black along with Nikhil this evening and truth be told, I found it ok-to-good rather than great. I expected to feel this way despite some glowing reviews from friends whose opinions I trust. Black is, fittingly, a palette of shades and we're going to differ in the ones we prefer.
So a note of dissonance from my side - primarily because of the level at which the film operates. This incidentally is my first Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, having never completely seen any of his previous works. I've seen fairly representative samples of them so for me this film is still distinctive of his style, different (paler?) though it may seem in comparison to the earlier films.
How do you express the plane at which the dialogues work, the actors play "it" and how the director offers his compositions? Perhaps a cinematic decibel scale of sorts with "loud" and "muted" thresholds. These levels are a huge factor in determining one's reception to the film (more than any other visual medium) - films appeal personally when they match your amplitudes, but some of them can even get you to temporarily leap on to theirs. Black and all the audience reactions to it essentially revolve about this aspect.
Black wasn't "loud" like I think Devdas must have been, but it still operated at a level or two above what appeals to me. I don't have significant first hand knowledge of how challenged people behave, but inherently I'm sceptical of cinematic interpretations which present such characters as para-normal and so completely different. Ayesha Kapur as the young Michelle plays it with head askew and lost eyes which I found unreasonable. I can understand untamed displays of behaviour and confused, unintelligible expressions of emotions, but not such physical bearing. This is something that the director obviously shapes, so I can't see eye to eye on that. My mind invariably goes to Naseeruddin Shah in Sparsh or Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Of course, those films didn't have "intensity" leaping out of the screen, so maybe Bhansali is in keeping with his film's tones. It also recalled Anjali where again I wasn't too impressed with the portrayal.
Of course, I have the same issues with the older Michelle; however Rani Mukherjee showed great agility in some scenes that require her to emote despondency and resolve and inner struggle. I thought Amitabh Bachchan got it more or less right - the character's eccentricity and capriciousness has been established and he does little that jars, except in a couple of places. Especially so in his descent into the maw of Alzheimer's.
The "look-I'm-making-a-different-film" aim is furthered by the cast of good but unfamiliar to audiences actors. I thought Shernaz Patel was good as ever, and it was pleasant to see Dhritiman Chatterjee back, but I thought he was disappointing. The adequately miffed Nandana Sen completed a family for which the casting director must be applauded - if you look at the trio of women and the young girl, the facial resemblance is better than in most films. The reds, ochres, saffrons, yellows are replaced by lots of black, white (nice ending shot contrasting the earlier mood) and grey with streaks of red. You can trust Bhansali to get these things consistent.
I read an article in this week's Outlook on the film where the core Bollywood cliques go ga-ga over the film. The article begins by asking if this is a "new idiom in mainstream cinema" and claims that it provides a "redefining moment in commercial Hindi cinema, pushing its frontiers of narration and style". I beg to differ. The redefinition has been happening for quite a while. But the fact remains that the Bollywood setup and indeed most of the Hindi film watching audience still view the people behind these new dialects (such as Ram Gopal Varma and his Factory, Mani Ratnam, Vishal Bharadwaj, Anurag Kashyap) as "outsiders" and do not embrace them fully. However, Bhansali is from a mindspace that these guys can relate to and such a deviation from him is naturally hailed as pathbreaking, for it strikes home much closer. Indeed, one of the dissenting notes in the Outlook article is from Kashyap who says that "They've seen it all in the West. There's nothing new it offers".
This debate is like the one that accompanied Shwaas. We hardly see themes like these being explored locally, so such efforts can be explosive and grabbing. The next logical step is Oscar talk (which has already begun in this case as well), but from an objective view, this is not the best effort yet. Bhansali says that this is a "small" film for him, and in essence, a vacation from his usual higher register scale. On the other hand, as a viewer, I'd rather that films are made tending towards these alternative themes and settings, not just be summer projects. There's much to behold in Black despite my scepticism but let's not do a Shwaas on it. If like Shwaas, it can offer its parent industry the guts and hope to explore other ranges, I'd consider it a landmark. Right now I'm afraid it's (to use a quizzing analogy) as if Derek O' Brien said "right, let me stop my glitz-oriented Brand Equity style performances and do a quiz with 50% workable questions and with Infinite Rebounds". But if it's just a one-off, then fine - I'm going to stop this crazy analogy right here!
To end what I began, I think the majority of Indian audiences resonate to the range of expression planes that Bhansali works within - probably just it's that I'm not part of that range. I felt the same with Koi Mil Gaya in which most people liked Hrithik Roshan's performance. (To this day no interview of his is complete without a crib about missing the National Award last year which everyone in the insular Bollywood world assumes was superior to the rest.) Black certainly didn't hit me as it seems to have done others. Perhaps there's a little cynical crust developing on the old heart or it was just a little too affected for me...
* A moment of unintentional irony when the lights went out during the show plunging us into blackness
* Got to see the early teaser for Mangal Pandey a.k.a "The Rising" with Kailash Kher going "Mangal Mangal..."