Saturday, May 24, 2014

Black: Knowledge in Darkness

I really do not know how should I begin to write about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Black. Typically, I start with a scene that I liked in a movie and then try to build a narrative around it. I last saw Black about six years ago and as I had mentioned in my review of Saawariya, it feels like I simply did not know how to watch films back then. Probably, the maximum time I have spent on this blog is on dissecting some of Bhansali's films. In the last few days, I saw Black again and it left me spellbound with its sheer brilliance. Even though I have watched it before, I was hooked. Black is a fabulous film. It is also a deeply spiritual film. The spiritual undertones are such nuanced and intricate that I will say that I am not really sure if I even understood the film in its entirety.

Black is the story of Michelle McNally, a deaf-blind girl, and her teacher Debraj Sahai. Michelle's story is inspired by the life of the famous author and activist — Helen Keller. In fact, Black takes inspiration from The Miracle Worker, a 1962 film also based on Helen Keller's autobiography. Black is the story of the sheer stubbornness of Debraj to give Michelle a life of dignity. It is the story of Michelle's determination to become a graduate. It is a story of never giving up your dreams. It is a story of the pursuit of knowledge transcending all barriers — physical and emotional. 

A mention of Sanjay Leela Bhansali invokes vibrant scenes of grandeur, opulence, and resplendence. The color in his films is so remarkable that his films are more likely to be called paintings. In Black, he uses the minimalist of colors — Black and White — and yet he is able to beautifully present a picture of grandeur. He also uses the concept of space and void to bring another layer of magnificence to the film. At one point in the film, Debraj dressed in impeccable whites is shown in a room that is completely empty. The walls, the pillars, and the curtains are crystal-clear white. This emptiness represents the vacuum of Debraj's life. He is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and the black cap that he is wearing on his brain is representing the blackouts from the disease. He is standing in the warmth of the light as if wanting to get the same light in his own life. I felt this was not only a terrific use of the symbolism to represent a character's state of mind but was also a beautiful demonstration of the concept of void. Sir Anish Kapoor, the master sculptor, believes that space is not empty, rather it is full of meaning and potential, and it is this paradox that he explores in abstract terms in his creations, some of the famous ones that I am aware of are Pregnant Wall, Yellow, and Void. He says that to visualize the vacuum, one needs to see material and without the intersection of material, space is simply space. Without anything to define its boundaries, it is endless. It is filling. However, add a material to it and the space is transformed. It is because things arise because of other things that they exist. Isn't this perfectly true of the scene? Would showing an empty room have the same effect as having a man in it? Bhansali uses the same concept of void in the scene and at many other instances in Black
Void and Space
When Michelle's mother says to her husband that she has found a teacher who could be of help to Michelle, he responds by saying that they don't need a teacher, they need a magician. Then, she says that that teacher might turn out to be the magician who brings light to Michelle's life. In the next scene, we see Debraj holding a light bulb in his hand as if the mother's words came true. Debraj will bring light to Michelle's life. The bulb is about to get extinguished and is 'dying' they say, another symbolic reference to Debraj's own waning life. Then, Debraj and Ms. Nair have a splendid conversation on how should he teach the word 'light' to deaf-blind kids. Ms. Nair says to simply spell it L I G H T. But Debraj disagrees and he says that is the difference between a magician and a teacher echoing the words of Michelle's father. He makes a sign for light that shows a stream of consciousness coming from the heart. He is the magician who will use his magic to teach Michelle.
Come to the light
What was interesting was Debraj's room was full of poems. The stanzas were written on the walls, on the boards, and on the mirrors. The first poem that was written was Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep
The epic poem is a metaphor for death. The narrator is exhausted and wishes he could fall asleep. On a literal level, he has a long trip home. But on the metaphorical level the 'miles to go' is life and the 'sleep' is death. The repetition of the final lines also has a darker meaning. They are an acknowledgment of a death wish that the narrator previously had before succumbing to his societal obligations. 

In another scene, some lines from T.S. Eliot's East Coker are written. East Coker is the second poem of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. According to Wikipedia, Four Quartets are four interlinked compositions with the common theme being man's relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. In describing his understanding of the divine within the poems, Eliot blends his Anglo-Catholicism with mystical, philosophical, and poetic works from both Eastern and Western religious and cultural traditions, with references to the Bhagavad Gita and the Pre-Socratics.

East Coker
East Coker is a very long poem and in the film, we only see the following lines. 

O dark dark dark.
They all go into the dark. 
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought
 So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Frost's poem is easy to understand but I have not read Eliot's poem ever. As one writer beautifully explains here, "Eliot advises to 'wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.' Waiting without thought means transcending thought, an experience of that lively state of pure potentiality before a thought has formed. Outside of death or the inertia of deep sleep, transcending is the only way the mind can experience thoughtlessness. To become 'ready for thought,' the mind must intimately know the source of thought. Until then thinking, caught in the web of time, will remain superficial and egocentric, but once the source of thought is established on the level of one's individual consciousness, thinking becomes powerful, evolutionary, and fulfilling. Having gained the source of thought, one becomes ready for it, ready to think and then act with profundity supported by the Laws of Nature. The section ends in vision: the darkness of death and the flickering light are transformed into the light of life, and the stillness of death and the stillness of waiting are transformed into the dancing stillness." 

Another author says, "Without mindfulness, the waiting time is defined by the absence of that for which I long. Of course, the bigger the dream, the longer the waiting time is, and the more agony fills that space in between. That translates into living in far more angst than happiness — even without counting objectively difficult life experiences — given the limited shelf life for elation from having a dream come true. Then, there are the dreams that didn’t come true. Instead, something else — often better — took their place, or that, by the time the dreams manifested, I had outgrown them. What good did all the longing and agonizing do? For silence is an emptiness, but it is an emptiness that makes fullness possible, a darkness that is light, a stillness that is the cosmic dance. In the emptiness of complete spiritual poverty, we see through and thereby become detached from everything, even our very thoughts."

The presence of Frost and Eliot's poems in Debraj's room has a common theme of darkness. While Frost's poem talks about the woods being dark and deep, Eliot's poem emphasizes the importance of darkness. This also underscores the theme of the movie itself—Black. It is only when we are in the dark that we see the light or as Albert Camus says, "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer." And Michelle says during her graduation speech, "Mere teacher ne mujhe black ka ek naya arth samjhaya. Black ka matlab sirf ghutan ya andhera nahi hota, it is the color of achievement, the color of knowledge and the color of the graduation robe."
Black is the color of knowledge

There were some other lines that were written on the mirror in Debraj's room, most likely a reference to Helen Keller.
Having felt with your fingers the sky so blue,
What else is there to look forward
Black is also full of numerous references to religion, particularly Christianity. In the beginning, when Michelle finds Debraj near the fountain, a sign of the cross appears mysteriously on the car window. Michelle's house is full of paintings of Christ. In one scene, there is the famous painting Theotokos of Vladimir, depicting Christ as a child nestling close to his mother. In another scene, there is another famous painting The Descent from the Cross by the great Rembrandt, depicting Christ being taken down from the Cross. There are numerous other paintings and statues that are present in Black but given my zero knowledge of art, I could identify only a few of them. 
Theotokos of Vladimir
The Descent from the Cross
Not only the paintings, but I also felt that some scenes had something related to Christianity. At one point, Michelle's mother remarks that Michelle's life is full of thorns or 'kaante' and Debraj replies, "Vahi kaante jo jesus ke sir pe taaj ban kar khile the." In that stunning scene, when Michelle learns to speak her first-word water, I felt it was symbolic of the Baptism in Christianity. It is a new birth of her where she is immersed in the water at the fountain, just like they do it at the Fountain of Life in the actual ceremony. She has learned that words have meaning and that water meant the cool something that was flowing over her hand, that word awakened her soul, gave it light, hope, and joy. It is her new birth where she has bridged the gap jo kaante aur phool ke beech tha, paani aur pyaas ke beech tha, naam aur arth ke beech tha. What was also interesting is that in the end, she teaches Debraj water as the first word. In that scene also, we see a fountain outside the window and it rains as if now Debraj is being baptized by Michelle. It is also worth noting is that now the position of their hands reversed. Earlier, Debraj's hand was at the top while in the latter scene his hand is at the bottom. The detailing is simply outstanding. As I said, Black is a deeply spiritual film.
Fountain of Life
At another point in the movie, we see the Gaiety cinema is playing Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. Some moments later, we see another of Chaplin's films The Gold Rush being played. The placement of these posters comes at a time when Michelle is shown having a comic side. Not only then is this is a story of Helen Keller, but Black pays tribute to one of the greatest actors Charlie Chaplin who showed that silence is another form of deep conversation. It is no coincidence that Bhansali uses Chaplin's silent films that were also black and white in his film Black.
The Kid

Gold Rush
In another of Black's spot-the-reference games, Michelle sings Nat King Cole's L-O-V-E with the singer in the party. Nat King Cole was an American singer and musician who came to prominence as a leading jazz pianist. He was noted for his soft, baritone voice, which he used to perform in big band and jazz genres. At one point, Michelle had remarked, "Mere saare sawaalon ke jawaab ke ek ke bad ek tum is tarah meri ungliyon pe likhte gaye jaise koi maestro piano par jeewan ki koi sargam suna raha ho." Was then Debraj, having a baritone voice too, a Nat King Cole for Michelle? :-) In another fascinating detail, Bhansali uses a second track by Nat King Cole called Smile in the opening sequences in Guzaarish. I am just amazed at how much does Bhansali knows about everything.
L is for the way you look at me
O is for the only one I see
V is very, very extraordinary
E is even more than anyone that you adore can

The lullaby that Debraj sings for Michelle is also a pretty famous one.
Hush-a-bye, baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall;
Down will come baby, cradle and all.
Just like the scene of the bulb and the magician, there were many other times where Bhansali uses the touch of linking them with the physical objects. At one point in the film, Michelle says, "Ek toofan zindagi ke saare sapnon ko beekher raha tha" and then we see her papers being scattered all over by the wind. 
In another brilliant scene, when she is being interviewed for admission to the university, she is asked, "What is knowledge?" She says, "Knowledge is everything. It is spirit, wisdom, courage, light, sound. Knowledge is my Bible, God. Knowledge is my teacher." If we look at the logo of the university, it has the exact same words — spirit, wisdom, courage.

Spirit, Wisdom, Courage

Black has no songs which are so hard to imagine in Bhansali films. But what is there is a terrific background score. It is so powerful that conveys to us the emotions of the characters so beautifully. It requires some amount of hard work to get the score right. It is just splendid. I don't know if I have loved the background score of a film other than Luck By Chance so much.

I really cannot pick one scene which I loved the most. I loved the entire movie. Whether it is the first time when Michelle learns to speak or the way she senses snow, or when she answers the question that America could be either in the East or the West, or the emotional meltdown of Michelle when she learns about her sister's jealousy, or the time when asks Debraj to kiss her — Black is so compelling that it is hard not to get your eyes moist. 

Ungliyaan, Mr. McNally, yeh andhon ki aankhen hai, goongon ki aawaaz aur behron ki kavita, thak jayen to talwar, band ho jaye to taakat, yeh niwala bhi hai aur ujala bhi, chahe to bhagwan dikha sakti hai ya phir darwaza. 
Aankhen sapne nahi dekhti, man sapne dekhta hai, andhere me aankhen bhi kisi kaam ki nahi hoti
I also loved how his brilliant way uses light in the picture. When Michelle's mother finds out about her condition, a light flows slowly across the stretches in the background. In another scene, Debraj and Michelle are again sitting in an empty room in the ray of light, again effectively using the concept of emptiness and darkness gorgeously. I felt it was referring to impressionist themes such as those of Monet's which he also used in Saawariya.

Rani and Amitabh Bachchan are simply outstanding in the film. It is one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen. Bhansali uses emotions, silences, and images to give us a hauntingly beautiful film. It is filled with melancholy and pathos but at the same time, it is highly uplifting and stimulating — the paradoxes that we see in a Sanjay Leela Bhansali film. Black is cinema at its pinnacle and it deserves to be seen. 

Dialogue of the Day:
"Life is ice cream. Enjoy it before it melts."
— Debraj Sahai, Black


  1. I will have to watch this movie once again. Let me see if I like it this time :)

  2. Sanjay leela bhansali had said he actually paid homage to his anglo indian school teacher in black. He was st xaviers student and his teachers were Christian so Catholic setting in all his movies he also visits church often

  3. One more noteworthy thing is that in khamoshi black guzaarish all having similar themes he has catholic backdrop. Also review khamoshi he said it had lot of his personal elements and he cant reveal why he made it.


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