This Delhi-set terrorist tale is Subhash Ghai’s best work in recent times, but does being better than Yaadein and Kisna really count for much?
MAR 9, 2008 – HAVING NAMED HIS LATEST FILM BLACK & WHITE, Subhash Ghai wrings every last drop from the implications of the title. Newcomer Anurag Sinha plays Numair Qazi, a suicide bomber out to wreak havoc at the Red Fort on August 15, while Anil Kapoor is Rajan Mathur, a professor of Urdu and a staunch nationalist, prone to purple declarations about saffron, white and green (“Deewana hoon apne tirange ka,” goes one such effusion) – so at first, the starkly different colours of the title merely appear to symbolise the evil-good dichotomy in these characters. But then we discover that Professor Mathur wears only white, while Qazi’s taste in fashion veers towards – what else? – black. The film, meanwhile, takes a cue from this palette and opens in black-and-white, gradually blooming into full colour, and rainbows pop up at several points, as if to chide Qazi that if he would only open his eyes, he’d see that the world is a riot of metaphorical colour, comprising the good and the bad and everything in between – quite unlike his monolithic philosophy, which is, well, black and white.
And finally, Black & White is itself all black and white – an all-upper-case, yellow-highlighted, 48-point-size plea for communal harmony with zero subtlety, zero shades of grey. Little girls launch into keyboard versions of Saare jahaan se achcha and little boys light candles (you know, to dispel the darkness and all), while the grown-ups wheeze about the possibility of terrorism being wiped out if only the terrorists could catch sight of a group of children (because these faces of innocence do not readily reveal themselves as Hindu or Muslim). After a while, I was fairly sure that Ghai was going to end his film by letting loose a flock of doves, but I was mistaken: there’s just one dove. The all-black Qazi, meanwhile, is a religious extremist referred to as “Allah ki amaanat,” and he is surrounded by all-white embodiments of goodness – potential love interest Shagufta (the vibrant Aditi Sharma), who has no hang-ups about decorating her bedroom walls with posters of Hindu demigods like Sachin Tendulkar and Hrithik Roshan; Gaffar Bhai (the wonderful Habib Tanvir, whose vocal cadences reminded me of Harindranath Chattopadhyay’s grating-yet-childlike lisp), who composes patriotic odes to Hindustan; even institutions like Zakir Hussain College, which are liberal enough to appoint someone named Rajan Mathur to teach Urdu.
And that’s exactly what you’d expect from Ghai, a broad-strokes brush-wielder if there ever was one. Black & White may be obvious and in your face, but then it’s not as if anyone would walk in hoping that this director would go for the arty, open-ended rhythms of Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist (which, along with The Devil’s Own, essentially told the same story: will the terrorist fulfill his mission in the face of a resolve that’s being whittled away by interactions with the innocent?). Besides, of all the films that Ghai has made in his recent quest for respectability – his transparent desire to be known as more than just the man who whipped up the potboiler pleasures of Ram Lakhan and Hero – Black & White is easily his finest. The only problem, though, is that this evaluation comes through comparison with Yaadein and Kisna: The Warrior Poet, so the merits in this film are more along the lines of “Ghai is s-l-o-w-l-y getting better at what he wants to do,” which is quite different from “this film really works.”
The good things first: Black & White features what is possibly the most startling scene in the Ghai oeuvre – that of a policeman getting a shave on the street, in front of his home, and slowly turning sideward as Qazi enters the house next door. It’s as if he senses an evil presence in the air, soon to ripple through the nothing-really-happens rhythms of his daily life, and I was frankly quite shocked that Ghai – of all people – had slipped into his film something this borderline-existential (or at least, something that allows itself to be read as this borderline-existential). Another beautiful bit – spoiler alert till the end of this paragraph – is the development where the person who overhears the terrifying details of a terrorist plan simply drops dead. I was waiting for this character to do something unbelievably stupid like what Rishi Kapoor did in Fanaa upon stumbling into Aamir Khan’s secrets, which was to threaten the latter that he’d go to the police at once. But here, you get the feeling that the discovery was almost too much to bear; threats about going to the police would imply that the information had been processed and a plan of action worked out, whereas this character could barely comprehend the magnitude of the revelation.
But unfortunately, old habits die hard – and you can’t help wincing when, in a film of this nature, a bad guy cackles with the glee of Ajit while talking about a pen that’s filled with a liquid bomb (remember that gag about liquid oxygen?), or when another villain ends his why-did-you-do-this question with, “Kyon? Kyon? Kyon?” (This, when the respondent is neither hard of hearing nor a complete idiot.) But this bombast is at least bearable compared to the supposed visual ironies (Qazi standing under a poster that proclaims, “Terrorism is a ruthless virus”) and the rampant symbolism (a child’s plight in a stampede being indicated by a cut to her doll being trampled by onrushing feet). Ghai seems to want to chart new courses, but he’s also reluctant to leave behind his old tricks – and this mix doesn’t always work. Even the inevitable love angle feels odd in this film. When Qazi learns that Shagufta has won a prize for dancing at an inter-college competition, he remarks that she cannot be a true Muslim, because a true Muslim would never wear those clothes or dance in that fashion. You sense, immediately, the bewilderment in Shagufta – as if to say, “And this is the man I was falling for?” – but a few scenes later, she’s back to flirting with him in the rain, holding up an umbrella.
If Ghai’s heart wasn’t in this scenario, you wonder why he didn’t simply lop it off, along with the laughable scenes of the CBI on the terrorists’ trail. They show up early on, then disappear for long stretches, then reappear for a ludicrous climax that seems to have no geographical moorings. One moment we’re inside the Red Fort, the next, near what looks like a bus station someplace else, then we’re back where we started, with Rajan Mathur tootling around stupidly in his scooter. It’s a good thing that Ghai had this cast – for anyone other than the super-sincere Anil Kapoor we’d have laughed off the face of this planet. Apart from an uncharacteristically fussy breakdown scene – and despite being made to mouth the worst lines and suffer through the most ridiculous contrivances of the screenplay, mostly involving his wife (a shrill Shefali Shah) – the actor delivers another one of his dependably solid portrayals. And Anurag Sinha holds an impressive blank-slate stare throughout, which works well for a character that’s all interior monologue and not especially given to displays of emotion. In other words, he’s fine here, but we’ll have to wait to see if he can really act.
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