Saturday, March 08, 2008

Black and White - No Grays

ये पेचीदा उलझे से रस्तों की दुनिया
ये वहशत के हाथों शिकस्तों की दुनिया
जहाँ आदमी आदमी से जुदा है
ये कैसी है फ़िरक़ापरस्तों की दुनिया
यहाँ होती दीन-ओ-धरम की हैं बातें
मज़ाहिब के चर्चे करम की हैं बातें
छिड़े जन्ग फिर मज़हबी क्यूँ यहाँ पर
सुनी हम ने ज़ुल्म-ओ-सितम की हैं बातें
मसाइल के यूँ सिलसिले तो बहुत हैं
लिये आफ़तें ज़लज़ले तो बहुत हैं
नहीं चाहिये हम को एक और दीवार
यहाँ दरमियाँ फ़ासले तो बहुत हैं
जले जिस्मों की काहिशों के लिये अब
घरों से उठे आतिशों के लिये अब
बुझा प्यास ऐ अब्र ऐसे बरस तू
तरसते हैं हम बारिशों के लिये अब
I wrote the above lines many years ago, at a time when I just out of college and it was fashionable to be disillusioned about religious intolerance and such matters. Those were the days when religious intolerance manifested itself in terms of localized, small scale communal riots that got erased from public memory as quickly as they emerged. 9/11 hadn't happened then (not even Babri Masjid); and this malaise had not attained such gargantuan proportions at the global level as it does today. In such a scenario, writings like the one above were merely musings of a meandering mind. Today they might seem like topical thoughts.

What has this got to do with Subhash Ghai's Black & White? As I returned home after watching the film, I had this sudden urge to go back to my old secular-themed poems because the words mouthed by some of the characters in the film seemed unbelievably close to what I had written in the past. While it is a little embarrassing to re-discover that I used to write in such a clichéd and blatantly sermonizing manner, it helps me be a little more charitable towards the film. The film is definitely topical and well-intentioned, even though the treatment is somewhat at odds with the demands of a theme like this.

The film is about an unambiguously 'black' suicide bomber (Anurag Sinha) who comes on a mission to New Delhi, and comes face to face with his conscience after his interactions with a 'whiter than white' family (Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah). When I had first heard about this film, I had sincerely hoped that the film would eventually conclude that there's nothing like black or white – everything is in varying shades of grey. Unfortunately, Ghai seems more influenced by a quote by the famous John Wayne – "If everything isn't black and white, I say, "Why the hell not?"" Nothing wrong with sticking to this ideology, but two things – one, is it really possible to put everything in water tight compartments of black and white; and two (more importantly), had Ghai chosen to explore the grayness of people, the film would have been much more interesting.

My biggest problem with the film is its script. The screenplay is haphazard and clearly unsure of where it is headed. In a tale like this, I think it is important for the audiences to see how the plot for the bombing is being hatched. But we see nothing about that. The 'plotters' are shown meeting several times but all that happens during those meetings is just a device to establish the bomber's character. We get no clue about what is being planned. If that was intentional and meant to create suspense, then a more fulfilling revelation of how they would execute their plan was required towards the end. Not the lame 'liquid bomb' stuff that we get to see. It would have also helped if some sort of a cat and mouse game was shown between the plotters and the police/CBI. That rids the script of any 'thriller' element it might have had.

Maybe Ghai's intention was just to focus on human aspect of the story. Perfectly fine. But there again, we get such vaguely written scenes. There is nothing that can justify why Anil Kapoor's character takes so lovingly to Anurag Sinha's character, whereas his wife clearly has some doubts in the beginning. Maybe it's his 'whiteness' (emphasized by a Surf-white wardrobe) that makes him see only 'white' in others, but that's a bit hard to swallow.

There are several elements in the film that provide evidence to Subhash Ghai's well-meaning intentions of creating something different. The first few minutes that document the journey of the suicide bomber from Afghanistan to New Delhi are well-shot and are as un-Ghai as you can imagine. The monochromatic palette used in these sequences does well to highlight the 'blackness' of the sequences. As he moves to Chandni Chowk we are introduced to the most endearing character of the film, an old poet yet to get recognition (fantastic performance by theatre veteran Habib Tanvir). The small scene where he is reading his poem out on the phone is a gem. Then, there are some sweet insights into the lives of married couples – the light-hearted banter between the old man and his wife (resulting in a funny one-liner) and the child-like playfulness shown between Anil Kapoor and Shefali Shah in bed are a treat to watch. It is difficult to imagine that these sweet nuggets are written by the same man who once wrote the loud (but immensely enjoyable) Raam Lakhan and Khalnayak.

At times, Subhash Ghai pens scenes that are understated, yet effective. The death of Habib Tanvir's character is one such beauty. But there are times when he gets overboard with symbolism. The climactic fight scene between Anurag Sinha and Milind Gunaji tries to imply that it's Anurag Sinha's conscience fighting with himself, but the way it is depicted visually is too in your face. A scene like this would never appear in a Ghai film of yore, but the fact it has started making an appearance in his films now (even though a tad too obviously) shows the director's intention to reinvent himself.

Such evidences of the director's intention to be different are, unfortunately, few and far between. For the most part there are clichés galore. There is this visual cliché I absolutely hate in films – the first shot of Delhi is of India Gate, followed by the Rajpath and Rashtrapati Bhavan. It's almost become a stock shot now. Then the whole stampede scene at the Qutub Minar with a doll being trampled is so passé. Next you have Muslim characters mouthing dialogue in Urdu that is completely anachronistic. I'm open to be proved wrong in this case, but I don't think Muslims in India today talk like that. The only exception was the character played by Aditi Sharma, representing a modern educated woman with smatterings of English in her dialogue. A welcome departure from the hackneyed 'Hai Allah' type of Muslim women one gets to see in Hindi films.

Another thing which I found a bit cheesy was the way Anil Kapoor's profession is revealed in the beginning. Also odd was the implication that a professor of Urdu necessarily has to be well-versed in Arabic and the Quran. While I don't question that it is possible, the implication that I-am-a-professor-of-Urdu-hence-know-the-Quran didn't quite gel. I know a few Hindus who are very well-versed in Urdu, yet don't know Arabic.

There is one thing which I don't see as a flaw, but if done differently would've appealed to me personally. In a scene, Anil Kapoor asks Aditi Sharma to talk about Ghalib's poetry. And the verse she chooses is the beaten to death ishq par zor nahin...
इश्क़ पर ज़ोर नहीं है ये वो आतिश ग़ालिब
कि लगाए न लगे और बुझाए न बने
Wouldn't the following verse be better in the context of the film, given the irony this verse presents with the simultaneous appearance of words for love, death and infidel?
मुहब्बत में नहीं है फ़र्क़ जीने और मरने का
उसी को देख के जीते हैं जिस काफ़िर पे दम निकले