Forty-three years after Arthur Penn’s B&W classic, “The Miracle Worker,” the true story of blind and deaf Helen Keller and her determined now-male tutor Annie Sullivan inspires a second big-screen treatment in Bollywood makeover “Black.” Stunningly lensed in color and widescreen, with megastar vet Amitabh Bachchan essaying the Anne Bancroft role of the tutor and Rani Mukerji the Patty Duke role of Helen, period pic is unconventional Bollywood fare that could work as a fest attraction. Name of helmer Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who scored with his sumptuous remake of “Devdas,” provides an extra hook.
In purely commercial terms, Bhansali’s latest outing is particularly brave. Big-budget item features some striking production design and saturated visuals but is way less mainstream — in Indian terms — than “Devdas” or “Hum dil de chuke sanam.” Running only two hours, and with no musical production numbers, it’s a largely dark, contained two-hander, suffused with chiaroscuro lighting and resonant blacks and blues. Bhansali tackled the subject of the blind in his first pic, the uneven “Khamoshi: The Musical,” but “Black” pushes the envelope of both Bollywood and his own career into territory for which there’s no existing parallel.
Since Feb. 4 worldwide release, despite excellent reviews, film has done only middling biz on home turf, more suited to upscale metro audiences than rural ones. It looks unlikely to recoup its hefty reported outlay ($4.5 million).
Film is bookended with scenes of the middle-aged Michelle McNally (Mukerji), an Anglo-Indian, writing her life story in braille, and hoping that her tutor, the now doddery and Alzheimer-ravaged Debraj Sahai (Bachchan), will still be able to read it. Under Michelle’s voice-over, story flashbacks to her childhood, when her well-off parents (Dhritiman Chaterji, Shernaz Patel) are shattered to find that, at age two, she’s become deaf and blind from an illness; some years later, she almost burns down the family’s luxurious manse in Simla, a northern hill station, by accident.
Hospital treatment fails to help the kid, who grows into a mute eight-year-old (Ayesha Kapur, in a remarkable perf) prone to violent temper-tantrums. In a last-ditch attempt to tame her, the parents unwillingly hire Debraj, an ornery and unconventional teacher of the deaf and blind who’s been pinkslipped from his school because of his drinking and failing eyesight.
Subsequent scenes (among the best in the movie) of Debraj wearing down Michelle’s resistance, winning her trust and slowly making her recognise words from the feel of his breath on her hand emotionally parallel similar ones in “The Miracle Worker,” despite being portrayed in the vocabulary of mainstream Hindi cinema. Bachchan, bleary-eyed but commanding, seems born to the role of the passionately dedicated Debraj, whose other battle is to convince Michelle’s starchy parents that their daughter may be deaf and blind but is definitely not retarded. The first breakthrough between him and the girl, at the 40-minute mark, is genuinely moving.
Post-intermission, story continues with Michelle now an attractive young adult (Mukerji) who, with Debraj at her side, attempts the seemingly impossible — to study at and graduate from a regular university. Things don’t go quite as smoothly here, but Michelle slowly learns to be independent, just as the first signs of Alzheimer’s start to strike Debraj. It’s now time for the pupil to help out her teacher.
Second half is closer to conventional Bollywood without tipping over into fullscale melodrama, and the addition of some harm and humor comes as a relief after the intense first half. Mukerji, who after the recent “Veer-Zaara” seems to be hitting her stride as a serious actress, is fine as the adult Michelle, and the conclusion, though corny, is strangely moving. Other roles are also well cast, with newcomer Nandana Sen good in a small but welldrawn role as Michelle’s snobbish older sister, Sara, and both Chaterji and Patel okay as the initially suspicious parents.
In Bhansali’s two previous blockbusters, extravagant production design was more than an equal partner in the drama. Here, though quietly lavish — the red-varnished wood interiors of the manse, the colonial look of early ’20s Simla in pic’s latter half — it doesn’t overwhelm the pic’s human content, even though, as in “Hum dil” and “Devdas,” the main set of the huge family home is almost another character in the drama. All other tech credits are of a high order.