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A film from the heart

In his own words, Sanjay Leela Bhansali `committed hara-kiri' with his debut "Khamoshi." But "Devdas" made up for it. With "Black," he enters a road not taken. He tells GOWRI RAMNARAYAN that aesthetically, it is his best film.

"Black" is a change from the formula ... without riotous colours and song-dance razzmatazz.

"BLACK" IS shrouded in mystery, and little has leaked out of the closed sets. If this new multi-crore production of Sanjay Leela Bhansali succeeds, it may spark a spate of more serious, even offbeat themes in Mumbai's dream factories, never mind that they are `inspired' by foreign films.

This Helen Kellerish tale of a wild, severely disadvantaged Galatea (Rani Mukherji as Michelle McNally) shaped anew by a passionate Pygmalion (Amitabh Bachchan as Debraj Sahai), simmered in Bhansali's mind for 10 years before its transfer to the screen. Not an art house film, but it promises more European chiaroscuro and less Bollywood flamboyance than the sob-driven "Devdas."

Further complications ensue when the wise guru succumbs to Alzheimer's. It is now the sishya's turn to help him recover words and memories. And will she fulfil their dream of graduating after all? Excerpts from a candid talk with Sanjay Leela Bhansali:

Are you afraid that audiences will reject "Black" because it doesn't explode with the same blinding colours and song-dance razzmatazz of "Devdas"?

I committed hara-kiri with my "Khamoshi" debut, didn't I? I laughed my way to the bank with "Devdas." With "Black" people said don't go there, it's full of thorns. But what fun to enter a road not taken, to explore blacks and blues and greys instead of riotous colours! I didn't want to stop making a film straight from my heart because of the fear of losing my audiences.

"Devdas" had a garish, nautanki format. "Black" is muted, even in the costumes, except once when we use red. I'd say that aesthetically this is the best film I've made so far. You know, those who do only the expected things `evaporate' from the minds of audiences. Scary!

Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali ... more European chiaroscuro and less Bollywood flamboyance this time.

Where did you get your story of a deaf-mute girl? What kind of research did you do for so specialised a theme?

It was inspired by the life of Helen Keller. I read other books including "On the Crossroads" by Geraldine Lawhorn, a deaf-mute musician. But the story evolved in live interactions with students in a school.

I was fascinated by the ways in which teachers and parents struggled to reach out to the hearing-impaired children. How do you start the communication? How do you keep it going? What takes other children a year to learn takes 10 years for them to absorb.

I watched a mother trying so hard, and with such immense patience, to convey the simplest things. I wanted to make a film about it right away. But I had to build up an audience, by first giving them what they wanted. After "Devdas," I not only had the audience, but was able to pull the finances together to make the kind of film I wanted. "Black" is not about feeling blue. We had a blast making this film, especially our technicians.

What did you find exciting about the hearing-impaired?

Their zest for life, their unquenchable fighting spirit. What a long tough struggle, yet they choose to live with energy and vitality. They don't want our pity, nor have I treated them as people who need sympathy from us. Actually we have so much to learn from them. Why can't they be the protagonists in a commercial mainstream film? Audiences too want a change from the same boring formulas and anyway, formulas are failing all the time. I believe that audiences make no special demands. Good fiction, made with honesty, conviction and entertainment, and they'll accept it.

"Black" sounds like a small budget film thrust into mega scale production.

(Pause) You're right. It should have been compact. Small or big should come from the content, the conviction of the director, the passion of the film making team, all coming together to achieve greatness. But what to do, I'm not able to break out of the habit of lavish productions. I want to make cinema that's taut, stark, real, I guess I mean realistic. I think "Khamoshi" is the most important film in the last 10 years. Will I go back to the song-and-dance routine after "Black"... ? Maybe "Black" is a step towards a more complex kind of film than what we get in mainstream cinema. Am I getting there... ?

A film with a deaf-mute for protagonist and a major character with Alzheimers' demands a wholly different approach to the use of sound, word and music. Was it difficult to craft the screenplay?

The score is just outstanding. It enhances performance, plunges you into the immediate experience. It is a tribute to silence. With the screenplay we had to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. What guided me was the fact that the hearing-impaired hold your hand as they talk, they are reaching out desperately, almost entirely through the touch, that is their most basic, urgent mode of communication, not textbook grammar, not even the language of gesture.

There is so much honesty in that touch. We don't touch each other anymore and I think we hear less because of that. I've never felt more reassured than when I held a deaf person's hand. They are so insecure about communication that there is a whole surrender in it. They get very angry over the smallest things! Imagine the frustrations of not being fully understood.

Deep down, the disadvantaged people are angry with life, they want to see and hear and talk, constantly groping in the dark. Anger is an important part of their expression. They don't camouflage their feelings, or disguise expressions.

Why Alzheimers'? Hmm... The idea of forgetting things, names, persons... terrifies me. When I forget a little thing, it is absolute trauma until it comes back to me again. All of us have these lapses of memory. What if memory doesn't return?

Shernaz Patel, Dhritiman Chaterji, Nandana Sen and Vijay Crishna around Amitabh Bachchan and Rani Mukherji! Did you succeed in bringing the actors out of the two stars within this impressive circle?

Our stars are very intelligent. Why would they shed their egos when they play stereotypes? Give them a challenging script (and) see how quickly they shed the glitz, excess baggage and egos. Amit-ji and Rani have never played anything like this before, they loved it. Rani is marvellous. I showed Amitji some footage from documentaries. What he has done is just incredible, never before in Indian cinema have we had anything like this — a man whose life is disappearing in front of him.

Her teacher plays a crucial part in Helen Keller's story. Were you also influenced by the concept of the guru leading the sishya from darkness to light?

I have learnt Odissi, I know what the guru can do, why we touch his feet. We don't respect our teachers anymore, but to me God is the teacher. He comes into your life once. He can be neurotic, erratic, complex, but he transforms your life, your perspective. You must not submit meekly, but question what you're taught. Then, the teacher removes your fears about life, the world, yourself.

From what you say the film cries out for restraint. Do you have it?

Listen, can you expect Kishori Amonkar to sing like Kumar Gandharv? I was born and brought up in Bombay where people shout at each other from the windows of flats on opposite sides of the street. I belong to a community with a loud lifestyle. You can't expect dignity, propriety, control and detachment from me!

My talk is full throated, my expressions full-blooded. I cannot make a film without melodrama. Also my protagonist doesn't know how to behave, she throws tantrums, she freaks out, she's full of passion, uncontrolled. The little child (Ayesha Kapoor) from Pondicherry has given a wonderful performance as a brat in a rage. The rage has its nuances, but all this stuff can't be tackled sedately.

How do you feel when you are identified as bearing the legacy of legendary figures like Raj Kapoor?

In "Devdas" I've paid tributes to all of them, to "Chaudvin Ka Chand," "Prem Rog"... In fact I made the film as Raj Kapoor would've made it, — over the top. I can't get Bimal Roy's subtle format and delineation anyway. I'm doing what comes to me naturally. I did get new perspectives through the camera in "Black" with Ravi Chandran. But I think large-scale. With television at home, why would anyone come to the movies if they're not panoramic? My imagery, framing and cutting are old fashioned, not modern like Mani Ratnam's!

Memorable moments in making "Black"?

When fire broke out on the sets and ruined all that had been lovingly and painstakingly constructed, I collapsed and said I can't take a single step ahead. The entire unit and cast came home and said, `we won't give up, we'll fight.' Amit-ji said, `we'll walk not a hundred but a thousand steps ahead.' Everybody had this thought that anger is an important emotion, and can be converted positively to achieve great goals.

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