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One of my all-time favourite movies reviewed originally for dogmatrix.com. Read on:
45 minutes. Yes, you heard it damn right. For the final 45 minutes continuously, I found myself sitting in the darkness of the cinema and weeping like a 2 year old. Truth be told, good scenes and honest cinematic moments have worked my tear-glands for 5-10 minutes in the past, but 45 minutes! As scene after scene of this unabashedly moving motion picture flowed on screen, so did my tears. If this isn’t proof enough of how emotionally potent Black is, I wonder what could be.
A memoir of an Anglo-Indian deaf-and-blind Michelle McNally (Rani Mukherjee) which commences in her frustrated, violent childhood (as young Ayesha Kapur) that is reformed by a teacher Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan) who himself gets inflicted by Alzhiemer’s later; this haunting and emotionally intense tale’s effect should be seen to be felt.
Singling out the best scenes of the enterprise would be both unnecessary and unfair as this amazingly edited film is chockfull of never-seen-before scenes in undiluted continuum. But commit this sin of singling the scenes I will, because this review would be so incomplete without them (Spoilers abound aplenty, so those haven’t yet seen the film, stop NOW).
In approximate chronological order, Debraj being told by Mrs Nair to go to McNally house to teach Michelle is the first memorable sequence just for its sheer tongue-in-cheek nature as Debraj translates Mrs Nair’s words in sign language, with hilarious effects. When the lady tells him to stop his sign-language bull-shit, he even contorts his hands to show a bull shitting! Marvellously canned. In the same scene, Debraj realising the irony of his job as a deaf-n-blind teacher (his students waved him goodbye looking in the opposite direction when he gets kicked out of the school for being a drunkard) is heart-rending.
The violence, the power and the energy of the young Michelle is so over-powering on screen, its haunting. Each of the scenes… where she pukes rice on Debraj’s face after being forced to eat calmly at the dining, where she kicks him hard and grabs the cake, tears it like sponge and gorges on it like some beast—the animalistic trait is so effectively captured by the young actor’s (Ayesha Kapur’s) squinting eyes, Debraj’s struggle, the dark-light frantic play of the camera and genuinely chilling background music that witnessing young Michelle finally eating calmly makes you heave a big sigh of relief.
The whole of first half is dedicated to young Michelle learning the connection between words and their meaning, and just before the lights go up to mark the intermission, the impossible happens—she learns the first meaningful word–water. In the very next scene, the way this girl runs around feeling the grass, the flowers, her mother, her dad and finally her teacher is the moment where I personally wanted to jump and scream out aloud (the impact of the emotions in this scene is overwhelming) and at the same time get a strange cognizance of the sheer limitlessness of the world around me.
I guess, it is somewhere here that the viewer develops a very strong affinity for all of the film’s characters and from here on, one winces every time Michelle fails her first graduating year, one aches to hold her and hug her as she phones her mom and struggles to utter “Ma Fail” and one wants to kick her sister Sara for being so evil to Michelle. Every struggle, every victory, every failure of the characters become your struggle, victory and failure. You feel their pain, their glee, their gloom… seldom have I come so close to a film’s characters.
The second half touches another pinnacle of raw emotion with Michelle continuously failing her graduation (the fact that you see Debraj and Michelle working hard through all the texts pronounces the disappointment even more). The scene where she’s made to realise that she’ll remain physically alone by her sister and being told to behave at the latter’s engagement dinner is another memorable scene. Rani’s expressions as she stares empty-eyed into the mirror are piece-de-resistance… her very look makes you wonder aloud if such a pure, innocent person ever deserved the harsh treatment. The very next scene where Sara reveals how in her own small ways, she always succeeded in torturing Michelle and Michelle’s outburst thereafter hits you hard as Debraj reads out Michelle’s small, loving speech for Sara. The beauty of the scene is – one empathises with both Michelle and Sara – innocent victims of sibling rivalry.
The last two sequences I’d love to pen down are where Michelle asks Debraj to kiss her once for he’s as close as she’d ever come to a man (watching Rani going all flaccid and falling back in the chair with a loud sigh before Amitabh kisses her is one helluva cinematic moment!) and where she stands in the hospital ward all decked up in her graduation gown as Debraj, an Alzheimer’s patient, tries to remember Michelle (Rani’s graduation speech and watching Amitabh as he feels the cape n the cap of Rani is a gem and makes one’s belief ever so strong that the film’s got a heart).
Like candles in a room burning the wax and spreading light, each of the performers in Black burn in their characters spreading raw emotion. Each shine with his own brilliance and in doing so, complements the brilliance of others.
If there’s anything eluding the status of “legend” to Rani Mukherji, Black is going to make sure its removed and she gets it much before any Indian actress ever did. The Bengali lass goes from strength to strength in every passing frame and is excellent throughout. That staring-in-space gaze (no, I can’t get that look out of my head) , those few words she utters with immense difficulty (“Ma Pass”, “Ma Fail”), the loud throaty sighs when she’s uttering her words, fuming or is excited; her reactions to the world around her (besides the above sequences, watch out for scenes where she learns walking with a stick, or bumps into a candelabrum-fells down and laughs at herself), and that daffy-duck walk… Rani’s made Michelle timeless.
I so dreaded coming to this part of the review as I am at utter loss of words for Amitabh Bachchan’s performance. Let’s not call it a performance to make my job easier. He’s reacted (not acted) all through like Debraj Sahai would. That pain in the bloodshot eyes, that energy in the animated hands, and that fatherly concern in the baritone… its all there to watch and relish. Though it’s surprising how someone so intellectually stimulating could develop Alzheimer’s but when Debraj does develop it, an emptiness envelopes you, the viewer. As the camera pitilessly captures the I-don’t-know-what-you-are-talking-about look on Amitabh’s face time and again, one’s moved beyond words. Its such a towering performance, I doubt whether BigB himself would ever better it.
Criminal it would be to not appreciate the quality of work that Shernaz Patel (watch the lady weep on realising her baby Michelle is deaf-n-blind and when Michelle learns her first word), Nandana Sen (as Michelle’s sis, Sara– she’s one of the reasons why the engagement sequence is memorable) and most importantly Ayesha Kapur (as the young, violent Michelle) have put in and who together with the efficient supporting cast make Black an intense experience.
At times reminding one of Devdas’s theme, Monty’s background score is an ace and the composer’s ability to carefully dissect every moment and inject a bang there and a tinkle there takes Black’s sequences to new levels. The film’s theme carries as much soul and emotional weight as the film’s story. And so does the visuals. The constant black-white play of the light and the sets, the visual metaphors which are abundant all through (cold, snowing exteriors and warm, oak-wood interiors of McNally House), the leisurely camera “watching” the life of Michelle from hidden angles only seldom going into “celebratory” mode (there’s the Bhansali favourite overhead shot where the camera rotates above the dining table as everyone raises a toast to Sara’s engagement and as it “flies” away into the whiteness towards the climax with Michelle-Debraj feeling water) and the wonderfully crafted out McNally House (its dark and opulent yet never overbearing or distracting). The difficult-to-place geography and ethnicity of the performers, contrary to what I read elsewhere, go that extra mile to make Black a universal venture.
Very snappy editing further polishes Black and in fact sometimes the scissors being run are so sharp, the film resembles a collage of images played in quick succession (the scene where Michelle finds Debraj tied to a bedpost with metal chains— one shot sees her struggling to free Debraj and screaming. Cut to next one—she’s walking with the chains down the corridor. The effect of editing makes this otherwise gut-wrenching sequence bitter-sweet). At 120 minutes long, there isn’t a single wasted scene, a single ill-chosen sub-plot or sequence… every scene is momentous, every character in very moment present for a reason. There’s little relief from the dramatic sequences in the 2nd half and coupled with the sympathetic tone that the film possesses all through, it makes it extremely difficult to sit-through the screening dry-eyed.
Everything kept aside, if there’s a man who deserves a bow from the viewers, its Sanjay Leela Bhansali who weaves this powerful tale with such astute precision both aesthetically and emotionally, that its doubtful if Black actually came out of Bollywood. There’s so much implosion of pain on screen in the film to take in for the senses, its overwhelming. If the man took everyone’s breaths away with his craftsmanship in Devdas, he does that again with his storytelling in Black.
Hope after watching this film, the so-called bigwigs and showmans of the industry sit-up and realise what’s cinema actually all about and what tosh they have been dishing out in the name of cinema in the past years. 2005’s already turned a vintage year for Bollywood with Black’s release– hope there are more such honest, heart-rending films from the world of Indian cinema.
Even as I wrap up this critique, I can’t help but wonder if there’d be anything as rich, as warm and as wise as Black this year, or for that matter the coming years (yep, call me a big pessimist you can). Seeing the immensely lovable characters struggle through their darkness and finally finding light—this is cinema at its best. Played beautifully, its combination of gentle realism in the dark worlds of mentally and physically disabled people makes for what is essentially a modern day masterpiece. A masterpiece just as dark, warm and magnetic as the colour BLACK.
Veer-Zaara (2004): ***
First things first. Veer Zaara’s somewhat better than SRK’s previous three pseudo-stylish “love-legends” Main Hoon Na, Kal Ho Naa Ho and Chalte Chalte. In the same breath, let me add that the genre-defining quality of Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Dil To Pagal Hai this simply doesn’t have.
The so-called epic’s tale is as simple as simple can get — love buds between a boy (SRK) and a girl (Preity Z) (here’s the clincher– “from two different countries”). At the crucial moment of boy’s proposal, the girl’s fiancee (Manoj Bajpai) enters the scene. As expected, the girl’s been engaged under much pressure from her parents (particularly her father who sees the alliance as his political-career’s springboard). This vexed fiancee and the girl’s mother (Kirron Kher) persuade and pressurise the dedicated loverboy to spend the rest of his life as a captive with a different name to shield the girl from any societal disgrace and the loverboy agrees. Yes, you heard it right– he agrees without as much of a frown here and a pout there. Fast forward to 22 years… while the loverboy graduates to being a mute lovelorn oldie in the cell, the girl’s life is a mystery. Things are set right by a die-hard feminist-cum-lawyer Saamiya (Rani) and all’s well that ends well.
There are so few things that work for Veer Zaara. And there are so many that just don’t. Let’s get over with the positives first:
It doesn’t burn the screen, but SRK-Preity chemistry is warm and simmering alright. Both the actors have been given minimal dialogues (I say kill the screenplay and the dialogue writer!), but right from the yearning expressions of the lovelorns to the raw passions of lovers- they both get everything damn right. It won’t be wrong to quote that its all thanks to these two actors that I could survive this painfully stretched flick.
Preity-dimples-to-die-for-Zinta finally graduates to being the archetypal Hindi film heroine in this dreamy-surreal avatar. The coyness, the innocence, the anguish, the dilemma… everything’s seeped in dollops of nubile feminity which was so missing in her previous performances. With none of those tomboyish in-your-face antics (which so killed her performance in Kal Ho Naa Ho) and free of those look-at-my-gait-and-my-cleavage-and-my-hour-glass-figure antics (so very present in every other actress in the industry today), Zinta makes for one hell of a Zaara.
As Veer, even the otherwise high-on-hamming-and make-up Shahrukh pitches in a controlled performance. All compliments aside, seeing him making a false thick baritone whenever asked to mouth the Punjabi dialogues made me laugh.
Speaking of Punjabi dialogues, its Amitabh Bachchan who gets them right to the last syllable in his gazzillionth special appearance. Supremely endearing as the rustic “jatt”, his moments with his screen-wife Hema Malini are some of the few watchable ones in the film.
For once, the Chopras aren’t obsessed with Switzerland, England, Italy, GAP, Gucci, Nike and the works. If there is someone who has really relaxed, its costume stylist Manish Malhotra and production designer Sharmishtha Roy. Ironically enough, these two names are why Yash Chopra’s last film Dil to Pagal Hai is still talked about. Clearly, this time around the director isn’t keen on giving his “love-legend” a radical look and resorts to “punjab ke khet”, “punjab ke gaanv”, “lahore ke bazaar” and its quite relaxing to see SRK finally don a dirty blanket in the cell rather than some faded Adidas trousers.
A stray subplot of women’s education in rural India comes across brilliantly as we see Zaara dedicating her 22 years constructively towards village people. I expected her to cry herself to death in some kaal-kothri like SRK!
The film boasts of three bewitching melodies — Do Pal Ruka, Tere Liye and Main Yahaan Hoon and all three have been sewn in the screenplay with fantastic timing and feel.
So where does the film falter?
As if you haven’t yet realised, Veer-Zaara is basically a Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge hybrid with the India-Pakistan dosti angle thrown in. The only thing that the film’s nonsensical screenplay can actually boast as its “own” is the redemptory stretch of 22 years during which the lovers live separately. Or probably I am wrong. Even this 22 year angle is lifted from Yash Chopra’s very own “Waqt” (a Balraj Sahni multistarrer of the ’70s). So this otherwise 3 hour long saga is basically a collection of some forced songs and some forced scenes.
The Preity-SRK love story though kept aloft by the lead pair’s performances is jeopardised heavily by cliched sequences and umpteen number of songs. Both Veer and Zaara are your typical do-gooders, think-gooders, sacrificial lambs who are trampled under the feet of the cruel society (sob sob).
The DDLJ hangover is so strong and so obvious in every damn scene that one wonders if Sr. Chopra has actually lost it as a film-maker. You can’t help but go back to Kajol prancing about in the rain in “Mere Khwabon Mein” as Preity wiggles about in “Hum To Bhai Jaise Hain” (albeit in ahem ahem salwar-kameezes). In fact the resemblance is so uncanny that even a sequence in choreography is there (Kajol woken up-Preity woken up, Kajol bathing-Preity bathing, Kajol in rain-Preity in rain). Seriously, can’t we have a different way to introduce the heroine? The song-borrowing from DDLJ carries on with “Aisa Desh Hai Mera” and “Do Pal” feeling more and more like “Ghar Aaja Pardesi” and “Ho Gaya Hai Tujhko To Pyar” with every passing shot.
And it doesn’t end there. The whole SRK-falling-for-already-engaged Zinta, Zinta realising her love for SRK after he leaves; the corny, tear-jerking dialogues between SRK and Zinta’s mother Kirron Kher when Mrs Kher pleads to SRK to leave Zinta; and even the characters– Zinta’s slimy fiancee and intolerant father… its all so damn DDLJ and so damn repetitive. Simply goes on to confirm what our mainstream Hindi cinema has finally become– a recycling factory.
I wouldn’t even hesitate accusing the SRK-coming-back-for-Zinta sequence for being a photocopy of the SRK-winning-Kajol sequence in DDLJ. Its just the geography of the matters stopping me in doing so. In DDLJ, our SRK had to traverse some many thousand miles from London to a village in Punjab. Veer Zaara sees him travelling from the Punjab village to Lahore in Pakistan.
Which basically leaves us with two minute novel “issues” that the film so forcibly tries to address– one’s of “women’s status in today’s society” and the other is of “Indo-Pak friendship”. Let’s see how touchingly these two “issues” come across–
The “women’s status in today’s society” angle comes across through this headstrong lawyer called Saamiya whose dialogues are written more for the seetis and taalis of the frontbenchers. In fact there’s a noticeable trend you notice as Ms Saamiya Siddiqui pouts a humanitarian dialogue, swashes around and then catwalks as the just-outsmarted opponent looks on, mouth wide open. This trend is noticed everywhere… whether this smug-with-righteousness is talking to a police officer, replying to her opposition… its so in-your-face and so spoonfed, it makes you crack up. Like with all the other characters, Saamiya’s character lacks any real depth and however hard the- otherwise-efficient Rani Mukherjee tries, this Chopra-brand underdog is nowhere near to Karisma’s Nisha of Dil To Pagal Hai or Vinod Khanna of Chandni.
The “Indo-Pak friendship” angle is conveyed through lyrics like “jaisa desh hai mera, waisa desh hai tera” or dialogues like “Mere bharat ki izzat ka sawaal tha, aata kaise nahin” or “Yeh ek pakistani ka waada hai”. In fact, its hilarious as lovers boast more about their countries in their few moments together than talk about themselves (no wonder Preity forgets to tell SRK that she’s engaged.
Some of the characters suck so much, they actually end up funny. Take Zinta’s father for instance– poor man gets such a massive shock on hearing about Zinta’s affair, he ends up on a death-bed. Its another thing that the very next shot sees him stripped off all the ventilators etc and smiling as Zinta nods to the alliance. Ditto for Zinta’s maid (Divya Dutta) who speaks in a hybridised cockney-Kabuli-Punju-Hindi dialect. While I am at it, there’s no explanation given as to why Manoj Bajpai lets SRK rot in the jail when Zinta doesn’t marry him. If only Mr Chopra didn’t spend so much screen time on songs like “Lodi” and “Hawa”, maybe I would have got some clues.
Moral of the story– If in love, get ready to be a sissy. Get ready to be ordered around to spend the rest of your life in captivity if need arrives, for all you do care about is your lover’s respect in society. (My take– f*ck this society.. stand up to your love!)
Finally– Go watch Veer Zaara. Just don’t presume it to be a love-story of this planet– the world (read India and Pakistan) and its people are nowhere as black and white as the film shows them.
In the closing shots, as Saamiya utters “Jaane yeh Veer aur Zaara kahaan se aaye hain… zaroor khuda ke bande hain”, I couldn’t agree more.