As perhaps the most important living Hindi filmmaker (2002’s bigger-than-big Devdas assured that), Bhansali is in the elite fraternity of directors who can dictate cast and script for his projects. With Black he turns in work that is the artistic antithesis of his earlier Devdas. The vain, showy heart wrenching from Devdas is replaced by cataclysmic, life-altering moments that capture emotional and physical agony. The heavy thread count silk fineries are replaced by ill-tailored dresses and simple shawls. Devdas imprisoned the heart. Black aptly holds hostage the mind.
In roles that are nothing short of chisel-carved for the principals, deaf and mute Michelle McNally (Mukherjee) is on the verge of being shipped to an insane asylum until Debraj Sahai (Bachchan), a determined therapist, convinces Michelle’s parents to let him school Michelle out of the given-up-for-mad cocoon she has retreated into. With the nearly-obsessed Debraj at her side, Michelle’s journey to gain acceptance in an unforgiving and sometimes cruel world becomes a powerful story.
And what a journey it is. Michelle’s goal of attaining a “normal” life, including graduating from college, seems all but impossible. Prakash Kapadia’s script, however, imaginatively traces Michelle’s child-to-adulthood arc with fascinating twists tossed in. At the helm, Bhansali beautifully contrasts the brooding interiors of a high-country Shimla estate (Michelle’s family abode) with the brightly-lit classroom settings when Michelle, with much difficulty, enrolls in college.
Bachchan, whose illustrious career path has led him from playing the definitive Angry Young Man in the 1970s to nailing Godfather-like patriarchal late-inning roles (surely no different than his real life) scores yet another homer with lasting value. Mukherjee, after playing second fiddle to Kajol early in her career (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham), after Hum Tum and now Black, convincingly stakes her female-lead territory.
That said, Black is not without flaws. The gut-wrenching physical torments Michelle must endure occasionally get repetitive. (Just how many self-flagellating hysterics can be packed into two hours?) Instead of illuminating the double demons of sensory deprivation and physical handicap of her limbs, the repeated dramatics threaten to derail the forceful narrative.
Also, having gifted actors get underneath the skin of characters who are physically disabled is a time-tested attention-grabbing device and Black, like Rainman and My Left Foot in Hollywood and Koi Mil Gaya and Khilona in Mumbai, will no doubt land acting accolades. Given all the professional tools at Bhansali’s disposal, opting on this particular cinematic device is somewhat of a copout.
The redeeming grace to Black is the cruelly bittersweet and oh-so-unexpected twist at the end, which is handled simply and sensitively. In what is a career-defining role for Mukherjee and a major entry in Bachchan’s career-graph, Black proves that cinematic sparks can ignite when a great script, a gifted director, and major talent all converge on the same playing field. Starkly brutal, songless and yet always enticing, Black is difficult to walk away from unimpressed or unmoved.