Wednesday 26 November 2008

Black & White (2008)

Subhash Ghai's Black & White is, unlike its title, full of ambiguity. Though the story itself may feel typical, its presentation is (surprisingly!) low-key and subtle. This was a refreshing change, since we had just finished criticizing Subhash Ghai for his overwrought and awkward directing in Yuvvraaj, and we were a little worried.

One big happy family. Sort of.

"Humanizing the terrorist" is a strange subgenre in Hindi films - all the films we've seen which tackle this issue inevitably come out like half-formed art films. They're not quite mainstream, but they're certainly already provocative because of the subject. Dil Se is one such film - and one of our favorite Hindi films ever - which examined the twisted infatuation of a naive Delhi boy for the tortured female suicide bomber. Dil Se was intelligent, dark, disturbing and fascinating - we highly recommend it. Another film from this genre which was made with less success was Fanaa. We would place Black & White somewhere between these two - not quite as engaging as Dil Se, but a lot better than Fanaa.

Mehmood (impressive newcomer Anurag Sinha) is a young, angry Afghan - the "Mr. Black" of the title. He is speedily introduced to us as a cold-hearted terrorist who kills a spying reporter in the first scene. Like Dil Se's Meghna, Mehmood plans to blow himself up in the Red Fort, Delhi, on Indian Independence Day (August 15). He changes his name to Numair Qazi, develops a cover story, and travels to Delhi's bustling Chandni Chowk area, where he is to lie low for the two weeks before the act.

The studly Anurag Sinha. And check out that composition? Is this the same guy that made Yuvvraaj?! How?!

Hey, it's Evil Guy from Devdas, Droh Kaal and Parinda. Looks like he's grown a new head, but no heart yet, alas.

Chandni Chowk is a hustling, bustling labyrinth of picturesque alleys and market stalls. It's also fairly representative of India's pluralism: the neighborhood is infused with Muslim culture, though there are also strong Hindu and Sikh presences. Generally, it's all very agreeable - everyone's friendly, everyone knows each other. Indeed, Numair/Mehmood eventually meets the locally famous Professor Mathur (Anil Kapoor) and his wife, Roma (Monsoon Wedding's Shefali Shetty). These two are an adorably wholesome, enlightened, activist Hindu couple - they're the type of people who would read The Guardian in the UK or listen to NPR in the States. Professor Mathur is a Professor in Urdu at the local college, and he's clearly well-versed in and enamoured with Islamic culture: he quotes Mirza Ghalib, corrects his Muslim pals on their Qur'anic interpretations, and is generally a peace-loving "Can't we all be brothers?" kinda guy. Yep - "Mr. White". Roma is instead a fire-brand social worker who has no qualms about publicly confronting ignorance and communalism. Yeah! You go, girl!

By some deviousness, Numair/Mehmood connives to enter their happy life. Since the Mathurs are well-known and well-respected in Delhi, he knows that they will be able to get him a VIP ticket for the upcoming Independence Day celebrations. However, as is typical of the genre, their goodness - and the humanity around him, including an unexpected infatuation from the girl next door - slowly wears down his badness until... well, you'll have to see just what happens and why.

Yet another fantastique composition. Go, Subhash!

The hustle and bustle of busy Chandni Chowk.

What's so satisfying about this film - apart from the fantastic set-up (strong women! religious pluralism! moral reformation!) - is how underplayed everything is. Never once does Subhash Ghai use aesthetics to emphasize Professor Mathur's goodness and Numair/Mehmood's badness. Instead, the realist treatment meant that we saw only their actions, sans embellishments. Gosh, it was almost hyper-realist! Not something commercial Hindi films are known for. Even the songs were fully-integrated into the plot: for example, when Numair/Mehmood and Professor Mathur visit a party or when Numair/Mehmood overhears the local garage band jamming out their most hypnotic qawwali tune.

Because of the lack of emotional cues, Numair/Mehmood remained a frighteningly ambiguous figure: he kills several people in the film, and yet he is not necessarily demonized. Rather the camera often pulls in to examine his expression: tormented and driven. There were several excellent subtleties which added texture: Numair/Mehmood witnessing the ground-level corruption of Hindu-Muslim youth leaders who jokingly threaten communal rioting in exchange for political gifts, for example, or the cynicism of his superiors. This was certainly the first film we've seen, Western or Hindi, which examined terrorism as not only religious fundamentalism (and, whoo boy, Numair/Mehmood's a pretty hard liner) but also as something which is driven by Machiavellian realpolitik. Indeed, ideologically-driven Numair/Mehmood's disgust and disappointment at these things were important catalysts in his road to redemption - again, another first! It wasn't just the gooey love of the Mathurs, it was some cold, harsh realities, too.

The whole "redemption" thing is treated in several other new ways. Gosh, we can't give too much away, but let's just say the ending was ambiguous and very un-masala. Also, following along this realpolitik cynicism, the movie seems to advance another interesting notion unlike other films in the "terrorist" subgenre (even Dil Se!): that is, horrible tragedy does not necessarily lead to revenge. Again - massive spoiler that we won't reveal - but Numair/Mehmood witnesses some pretty gruesome stuff and, most importantly, witnesses Professor Mathur's painful but iron-willed acceptance of it. This reminded us of Paul Collier's work on the socio-economic causes of civil war; his basic argument is that it isn't ideology or ethnicity or race or religion, those are just cards played by economic players seeking what everyone else wants: economic and political power. Black & White was surprisingly complex film in that it seemed to be saying the same thing. It therefore seemed to imply that terrorists may not be totally to blame - it's the people that guide them, lure them in and use them. As one character in the film says (incidentally, the terrorist leader himself!): "You have to understand the causes of terrorism to end terrorism, you can't just target the terrorists themselves." Watching Numair/Mehmood's gradual awakening to these realities - the fundamental reality that the world is never black and white, and he's been essentially conned into thinking so - is especially powerful.

The performances - on which so much depended in a film like this - generally delivered. Anurag Sinha was especially impressive as the tormented, brooding Numair/Mehmood. He toes the very fine line between remaining true to the character's intolerance, ignorance and ruthlessness while also displaying the character's humanity. Such a performance could have easily been mishandled - too evil, too maudlin, too fake. Instead, Anurag Sinha managed the amazing task of making Numair/Mehmood appear both vulnerable and frightening, both boyish and far from naive. And all he did was basically glower! Amazing. He has a great intensity of expression and we look forward to his future work.

Goodness us! Can Anil Kapoor do any wrong these days? Well, yes. But this guy is just on the up and up on the blog circuit and in our dil. Go, Anil, you amazing performer you!

Anil Kapoor... ah, well, Anil. We're starting to think there's been some big mistake in Mumbai. Why did Anil even waste his time going for that brand of SRK/Salman Khan/Amitabh Bachchan Bollywood hero performing in the 80s and 90s? He's clearly a very talented actor - on the par with Om Puri or Naseeruddin Shah or Raj Kapoor - and he clearly has only just started to do roles which merit his time. We're also happy that after five (or six?) Anil movies so far, he's provided profound, complex performances in all except one. In Black & White, he is generally very good again, but not great. In particular, his performance reminded us of Naseeruddin Shah's performance in Chakra - both began with a sort of forced light-heartedness and only came into their own towards the end, post-some trauma. There's a scene in particular which was very impressive (and affecting), as Anil attempts to hide his grief, it could have been something straight out of The Son's Room. And no one is doing that sort of work in Bollywood right now - except maybe Naseer. So, happy to report: Anil Kapoor Month continues merrily along at the PPCC!

We had high hopes for Shefali Shetty, as we hadn't seen her since Monsoon Wedding and weren't even aware she worked in mainstream/semi-mainstream Hindi cinema. Although her character was great, we felt there were several moments when she bordered on becoming a caricature of the fiery, headstrong woman. If we can fantasize, this would have been a perfect role for Neetu Singh - Neetu, where are you?! When are you coming back to the industry?! Pleeease!

Shefali's character was a bad-ass and we loved her. You tell 'em, girl!

That's all a lot of gushing, you might be thinking, but alas, the film is far from perfect. The most glaring problem is that it failed to emotionally engage us. That is, our brain was happy, but our dil was mostly left out. We blame this completely on whoever wrote the background music. Background music is a pretty integral part of the movie-watching experience - at the most facile, it gives us our emotional cues. While we appreciate Subhash Ghai going for a tamer, more documentary-style style in this film (complete with hand-held cameras!), we couldn't make heads or tails of the background music. It was mostly tinkling piano tunes that ranged from sounding weirdly elevator jazzy to Mister Rogers-esque. Suffice to say, it didn't engage us and instead impeded a lot of our emotional involvement (dude, you don't want to be thinking about Mister Rogers when you watch this movie). The songs, however, were all tasteful (considering the gruesome topic!) and enjoyable.

When we asked around, it seemed that no one's seen this film. "The trailer looked terrible," one friend said (rightly, we think). But come on - are we really the only ones? If so, all you PPCC readers, get thee to a DVD place and check this out. It's not the best, but it's different and thoughtful and we want to hear your opinions too!


eliza bennet said...

PPCC you have convinced me. Anil or no Anil this is going to the shopping cart!

eliza bennet said...

And thank you (even if you didn't do it intentionally) for the no nostril shots :)

Anonymous said...

I love Shefali Shah/Shetty; have never been able to figure out why she's always relegated to "older woman" roles when she's so gorgeous.

And a good actress too :-)

ajnabi said...

Evil Guy makes evil look HAWT. I think I need to see this (but not for him. Am above such superficial incentives. Want to seen Anil).

Filmi Girl said...

I'm with Ajnabi re: Mr. Black.

Also, thanks for reviewing this! I feel in love this song "Peer Manava" when the movie was released but never got around to seeing the film. I'll be sure to correct that, now.

a ppcc representative said...

Eliza - I love finding hidden gems like this. I would compare this to Omkara, Maqbool, Life in a Metro or similar whatnot - it's a very clean, sharp, intelligent commercial film. Also, I reckon it's a very easy intro for the Bollywood newbie.

Eliza2 - Ahaha! The nostril thing, ah yes. Now I feel like including close-up shots just to tease you about it. :)

Memsaab - Yeah! Goodness me, how old is she? I was a little shocked that she who played Naseer's niece in one film should now be playing (a gray sideburned!) Anil's wife in this. WTF? What else has she been in, btw?

Ajnabi - Anurag is amazing, I have to say. Apart from being fabulously good-looking (wheee!), his performance was quite profound and nuanced. I liked it a lot! Apparently Anil was all like, "Subhash, where'd you find this kid?" And the Anurag wiki says that Pune Film Institute place... so OK, not a huge discovery, that place generates a lot of great "arthouse" talent.

Filmi Girl - This film definitely got short-thrifted. It was barely a blip on my radar - just a couple lacklustre trailers - and yet it's such a nice little film!

red42 said...

I saw this at the cinema when it was first released and was very disappointed. I felt that the first half was excellent - as you said all very understated, and the sudden violence when Mehmood kills someone is very well handled. Anil Kapoor was truly outstanding in his portrayal. And then I got into the second half and it all seemed to fall apart and slide into, for me, very disappointing and unrealisitc conclusion. So yay for the first half, but boo for the second half. It should have been so much better.

eliza bennet said...

PPCC, I gave good old Anil a second try in Salaam E Ishq, (horrible film btw) but I think getting that weirdness out of my chest helped a bit :)

Anonymous said...

Shefali Shah's recent performances that immediately come to mind--stellar one in the Anil Kapoor-produced "Gandhi My Father", a small but good bit in Aparna Sen's "15 Park Avenue".

Mona said...

Ooh! I have been wanting to catch this movie but have always been unsure about it! Definitely gonna watch it soon now!

Harichi said...

I loved this movie! When I saw Anurag Sinha, I was in loooove! Well, until I saw his bad*** nature and hatred in the beginning. But like you said, the movie doesn't demonize him nor sugarcoats the harsh realities. The film as well its title underlines how the world is not black and white. I give this movie 4.5/5 stars.