A standing ovation for Subhash Ghai for venturing into a territory that would be considered uninviting for an escapist entertainer. But ‘Black & White’ doesn’t impress you merely because it’s a daring deviation for the showman.
It’s a well crafted, finely written and packaged piece of cinema done with more heartfelt Gandhian articulations than most films in recent times that have merchandized Mahatma Gandhi in Munna Bhai tones of bubblegum philosophy.
You don’t often come away from a film disturbed yet hopeful about the distending dimensions of modern day violence and terrorism. We did it in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Dil Se’, Gulzar’s ‘Maachis’ and Santosh Sivan’s ‘Terrorist’. Now we feel a genuine concern for the collapse of Gandhi’s secular dream in India as Chandni Chowk, rapidly becoming a favourite haunting-ground for Hindi moviemakers, turns into a bustling hotbed of terrorist activities.
Into this arena of imposed constitutional caprices comes Numer Qazi (Anurag Sinha), a victim of atrocities in Afghanistan posing as a casualty of the Gujarat riots. After a stage-managed gun battle in the toasted-brown hinterland of Delhi, the seething simmering silent Numer wins over the super-secular Professor Mathur (Anil Kapoor) and his feisty wife Roma (Shefali Shah) and gets himself a pass into the VIP enclave for the Republic Day parade.
In all honesty, much of Ghai’s newspaper-generated politics is amateurish and simplistic. The terrorists and the intelligence wing look as terrifying and intelligent as an episode of the long-running TV serial ‘CID’. And what was the need to make Anil-Shefali’s little daughter mute? Maybe Ghai wanted us to take the Black part of his film’s title seriously.
Everyone bustles around looking brilliantly self-absorbed while pretending to be wedded to a greater cause of which they seem to know as little as the director.
What makes ‘Black & White’ special are the bonds, brittle or beefy, that form out of the sketchy political backdrop.
Ghai fills the centre of the plot with people who have the ability to reach out to each other within a social framework that is rapidly romancing dementia.
Most memorable of all is the old but fiery Muslim poet-professor, played with hungering humility by veteran actor Habib Tanvir. The film’s best and most moving lines are rightfully written for him.
In one sequence a young musician gifts the old man with a sherwani after having sold his poetry for a song. Habib recalls how in all his years no one, not even his own sons, had gifted him anything. In another sequence, a callow news anchor approaches Habib for a byte and he wonders, ‘Ab mujhe kisse bite karna hoga?’ (Whom would I have to bite now?)
This interesting character’s sense of betrayal for having unknowingly harboured a hardcore terrorist in his house never comes through.
The screenplay is littered with limp and half-finished loops of storytelling where the director seems to have lost his way, only to quickly get his plot back on its foot through some sharp lines. Ghai’s dialogues are spicy and hard-hitting, and Somak Mukherjee’s cinematography captures the tragic decadence and teeming colours of Old Delhi to create both romance and intrigue.
The interplay of relationships is restrained most of the time. Anil and Shefali look more like a couple than she and Darshan Jariwala did in ‘Gandhi My Father’. Her excessively enthusiastic activism and his chronic embarrassment at his wife’s overzealous flag-waving provide the lighter moments in this distinctly dark drama of secular devaluation in a society with complexities due to differences between various religious groups.
Ghai doesn’t delve deeply into those complexities. Whether it is out of choice or because he cannot, we do not know. But the lightness of treatment and the overt filminess of certain interludes lends a tangy vigour to what would otherwise have been a drab prosaic and polemical tale of strife during times of mordant cynicism.
Among the performers, Habib with his emotional patriotic poetry and jovial optimism scores the highest marks, followed by Shefali who furnishes a feisty positivism to her role. Anil, last seen donning the buffoon’s mask in ‘Welcome’, does a complete somersault. His character of a supremely secular Hindu devoting himself to teaching Urdu is wildly idealistic. He plays the role of Mathur at a high pitch.
As for debutant Anurag, in the central role of the closet-terrorist, he wears the sullen scowl as a passionate statement from the first frame to last. To see what else he is capable of, we shall have to wait till another Friday.