I saw Black when I was visiting Mathur in Chicago (in what was the biggest multiplex I have ever seen - with 30 screens!!) and decided to post a mini-review on this blog. However, other things came up and I never got down to do it. Until now, that is.
Black is a good movie. A very good movie even. There are a lot of things about Black that are even better than some of the best indian movies I have ever seen. And yet, I don't think I'd include Black in that list of "some of the best indian movies I have ever seen".
Like I said, it has a lot of very good things. It is one of the most wonderfully shot indian movie you'd have seen. The lights, the shadows, the colors and the lack of color all work to set up a mood that is both sad and joyful at the same time. And the sets have a lot to do with that too. They help in expressing some of the sadness of Michelle's life and yet, the sheer beauty and grandeur makes you feel good about the art itself. Which, in a sense, is also a weakness of the movie. The setting is so far removed from the theme that the movie fails to touch you. It failed to touch me at least. Which is a pity, because its theme lent itself to be made into a very sensitive movie. Bhansali, however, ends up making a sentimental movie. A movie, that reminds you at every juncture that you are supposed to feel sad about this person. That you are supposed to be touched by this particular scene. If you need to remind the audience by going over the top, you are never going to touch their hearts. The most poignant moments in the movies are the ones where nothing much is happening on the screen. The emotions well up as a result of the understanding of the situation. They don't need to be forced by chaining up your protagonist to a bed or presenting a long, sentimental monologue to be spoken at the dinner table.
As I see it, Black is Bhansali's best movie by a big margin. But it shows some of his flaws just like his other movies. He has always been prone to going over the top when depicting either happiness or sorrow. And he does exactly that here. What makes it even more distant to the viewer is that you never identify with any of the characters. Because it is set in a world we never see around us. A very rich anglo-indian family of (presumably) first half of 1900s living in a hill station is not something a lot of people will identify with. Yes, its a setting that allows you to compose breathtakingly beautiful frames. And there is nothing wrong with making a beautiful movie for its own sake. But you have to give up any hopes to draw some involuntary tears if you choose that way to go. Problem with Bhansali is that he likes the medium so much that he can't resist going all the way with it and yet, he likes to be seen as a sensitive person resulting in portrayals and themes that are not quite consistent with each other.
All that aside, it is still a very good movie. The performances are all top-rate (except for the person who plays Michelle's father. I still can't make up my mind if I have the problem with the character or that actor, but I just didn't like something about him). Amitabh is good as he almost always is. Though I have come to know that people are saying that nobody else could've played that role as well as he did. I don't quite agree. I can think of many people who would probably have done just as well. Naseeruddin Shah for one. Kamal Haasan for another. That doesn't mean Amitabh wasn't great. Just that "no one else could've done that" is a bit too unfair to others.
Rani is great too and should probably start preparing for next year's award functions. (Though I found the stupid gait very distracting). She got an author-backed role and didn't do injustice to it. But the best thing about the movie - probably even better than the cinematography - is Ayesha Kapur. The little girl is incredibly good. As I say about a lot of things, her performance alone is worth the price of the ticket.
Another great thing that enhances the movie's appeal is the background score by Monty. Even though there were times when it is a bit too loud and distracting - again, making you feel that you are supposed to feel a particular emotion at that particular point, rather than letting the emotion come up naturally - overall it is brilliant. Rahman really should've found time to do this one. His loss is Monty's gain and we are surely going to hear a lot of this guy in coming years.
To sum up: Sanjay uncle, tone down the melodrama. You really DO have the potential to be one of the best directors that we have. What is killing your movies is the melodrama.