I am Rani, Queen of Acting Skill.
I am Amitabh. I am out-acted.
There are two Helen Keller quotes before the title, and this sets the tone of the film. Black is practically an unofficial remake of Helen Keller's life, with the slightest of Indian touch. You will see narry a bindi here, for Black takes place in a make-believe India so Europeanized it makes Switzerland look exotic. It is the story of Michelle McNally (Rani Mukherjee), an Anglo-Indian girl who is born deaf and blind. For eight years, her parents struggle to care for her, but they can do little more than tie a cowbell to her side and resign themselves to her fate. That is, until, they find a teacher and self-proclaimed magician, Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachchan), who - as the back of the DVD case would have us believe - is a "battle-weary warrior" and also braille and sign language expert. Thanks to Mr. Sahai, Michelle "comes into the light" and is able to lead a thriving, dynamic life, something she never knew as a child. She goes to college and earns a BA in Arts, a triumphant achievement.
A lovely college scene.
Jesus College, Oxford University, India.
But all is not well. Mr. Sahai, who certainly didn't lead the most healthy of lifestyles (booze + choleric personality + that ever-present beanie!), ages rather rapidly and soon begins suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. It is then an adult Michelle's task to bring her teacher "into the light", re-instructing him in all that he has forgotten.
Gothic imagery, almost to the point of being creepy.
See?! Robert Frost on the walls? Creeeepy.
Like a horror film! Aieee!
Well, it's certainly hard to be hard on a story as triumphant and inspiring as this. The fact that it is, practically par for par, a re-telling of Helen Keller's life means that, at least somewhere, something as amazing as this really happened. And that's quite an achievement. Wikipedia's entry on Helen Keller will fill you in on the details - but the teacher-pupil relationship of Mr. Sahai and Michelle is obviously based on the real-life relationship between Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. For example, Mr. Sahai also takes it upon himself to discipline Michelle as his first task, and the break-through scene is, indeed, when Michelle understands the sign for "water" and then demands to know the signs for every other object around her. There are, of course, a few, minor differences in this fictionalized account; the fact that it's Amitabh Bachchan, former superstar and now crusty-yet-lovable Obi-Wan Kenobi figure, clearly changes the nature of the relationship to something a little more complicated. At least, Michelle cannot help but demand a kiss in one scene. (Who wouldn't? Come on, now, it's the Big B!)
For a film directed by the guy who directed Devdas, this is as opulent and austere as that mainstream Bollywood fest was, except now with an overblown European, uber-Christian setting. Instead of a huge Ganesha in the atrium, we have the Virgin Mother looking down on us. Apparently Christian homes also resemble Gothic cathedrals, complete with very tall windows and poor lighting. While the film maintains the thin belief that this is "somewhere in India", most of the dialogue is in English, the characters all clearly Christian, and the costumes straight out of the latest autumn catalogue of Abercrombie & Fitch. For those of you wanting to see some Hindi cinema, this is about as far from Hindi cinema as a Hindi film can get. Unsurprisingly, there are no songs.
Your standard, run-of-the-mill Gothic cathedral house.
With lots of walkways and railings. Like in Devdas.
But Rani Mukherjee really is amazing. Her transformation from the eternally weepy Barbie to Shah Rukh Khan's Ken is stunning, and she takes a big leap in playing an unglamorous and difficult role like Michelle. The young actress who played the eight-year-old Michelle, Ayesha Kapoor, is also incredible - we assumed she was really deaf-blind until we read in an interview that she wasn't. All we can say is, DAMN, GIRL. That is amazing for a child actor. Amitabh Bachchan is enjoyable, though not necessarily realistic, as we kept noting to ourselves that if someone as loud, theatrical and gruff as that came into our lives, we would think our life had turned into a bit of a movie. Also, his insistence on wearing a black beanie at every occasion - weddings, graduation ceremonies, psychiatric wards - over a period of twenty years, became a bit silly. Still, you gotta love the Big B. And, of course, ask the eternal question: Why isn't Shah Rukh Khan making stuff like this?