Though the story itself does not mention her, the movie is inspired by the story of Helen Keller, with a few plot points based almost directly from Helenâ€™s life. Of course, a lot of other things are very different.
On Hulu, which lists it as being from 2011 for some reason. Approximately 120 minutes.
Michelle McNally is 40-years-old and has been blind and deaf since she was 2-years-old. The movie opens with her and her younger sister Sara reuniting with Michelleâ€™s teacher, Debraj Sahai, whom she has not seen in twelve years. Michelle is overjoyed to see him, but he is almost in a daze. He is suffering from Alzheimerâ€™s (which has popped up multiple times in things that I have watched this week), cannot talk, and seems to have no memory of anything, even Michelle. They take him to a hospital so that doctors can take care of him, but Michelle refuses to believe that his mind is gone, and attempts to give him her autobiography, in which he is featured prominently.
Michelle comes from a rich family, but they did not really know what to do with her. From age two to eight, she is treated like an animal and behaves as one. Things come to a head when she almost burns down the house and then knocks over baby Sara. Their father, Paul, is infuriated, and wants to immediately ship her off to a mental institution. Their mother, Cathy, intervenes, and thinks that maybe they can ask for a teacher from a school for kids with disabilities. Paul thinks that this is a foolâ€™s errand, but relents.
The teacher is Debraj. At this point, he is drunk, destitute, resentful, and seems a little bit unstable. He sees this assignment as a chance to bring life to a child as well as redeem himself. Paul seems unimpressed, but Cathy is willing to give him a chance. At first, things are going relatively well.
During lunch, Debraj observes Michelle grabbing the food off of plates and wandering around while Paul is saying Grace. She attempts to get food off of Debrajâ€™s plate and he rather forcefully keeps her away. Paul and Cathy tell him that that is how she eats, but Debraj refuses to let her eat improperly, and eventually orders them to leave the dining room. Things seem to be getting worse and worse until Debraj douses her with a pitcher of water. That calms her down and lets him feed her with a spoon. That seems to be enough to impress Cathy, but Paul wants Debraj out of his house. Cathy relents.
Conveniently, Paul goes away for twenty days. Debraj manages to convince the servants to take as many things out of Paulâ€™s study in order to transform it into the teaching room. Cathy is upset at this brazen act of disobedience on the part of Debraj and her servants, but Debraj insists that he needs these twenty days to prevent Michelle from being taken to an insane asylum. Cathy insists that she will never allow that to happen, but Debraj says that his mother had promised the same thing regarding his daughter before eventually dragging her there herself. He asserts that Michelle is not mentally retarded, and merely needs to learn words and their meanings in order to function as a human being. Cathy, who had been reluctant to send him away anyways, agrees to let him teach Michelle, though she is unhappy with not being allowed to interact with Michelle during the time. Things start out as adversarial as they had been before, but things start to change after she hurts herself and Debraj gives her some balm. Things a quieter and friendlier after that.
Unfortunately, by the nineteenth day, Michelle knows many words, but not their meanings. Cathy tries to get him to leave before Paul gets back, but Debraj acts frantic, fearing that Michelle will get sent to an asylum despite all of his efforts. Paul returns and orders him to leave. Aâ€¦umâ€¦last minute breakthrough, however, convinces both Paul and Sara that Debraj should stay. Looking back, Michelle considers this to be the first victory over the darkness. The film then flashes forward several years later, when Debraj accompanies Michelle to university, and gives her a walking cane.
The main theme of this movie is achieving oneâ€™s full potential, regardless of whatever obstacles are thrown oneâ€™s way. The obstacles are not really societal or prejudice. Aside from Paul in the first half, most people are very accepting, patient, and acoomodatingâ€¦at least those who do not simply avoid her. It is more a matter of expectations. In the beginning, Michelle is wild and angry, and everyone around her allows her to act that way until someone gets hurt. Debraj makes her see that there is more to her than what she realized there could be. The second half is more focused on the need to gain independence, put in hard work, and the late entry into adulthood. As one might guess, the scenes in the â€œpresentâ€ have Michelle trying to do to Debraj what he had done to her when she was young. Granted, having Alzheimerâ€™s is quite different from being deaf and blind, but the point is not giving up on people.
This is a wonderful, uplifting film. It can, however,Â be difficult to watch at times, particularly during the first half. While hardly cruel like a certain jazz teacher, Debraj is not always the feel-good type teacher. Some of his practices may seem a little strange, but the core of his teaching style seems based on repetition and memorization. He does not put up with any of young Michelleâ€™s antics, which leads to several segments of the movie that have a man yelling at a young girl and handling her rather roughly. Things get a little less disturbing in the second half when Michelle is in her twenties, though there is still a moment or two where things get a little testy. One aspect of the movie that may seem a little odd, but may also be deliberate, is to have many of Michelleâ€™s breakthroughs come after a moment of pain, anger, or severe stress. This could be seen as being approving of borderline abusive behavior or it could be seen as promoting the need to push people past what they may believe are their limits, and that any shortcut from tedious persistence comes at a price. I am not entirely sure that I buy that line of thought, but this movie does seem to argue that becoming the best that one can be may involve having to fight past failure, frustration, and lowered expectations.
Black is also a movie about lost souls finding each other and finding redemption. The movie never says what happened to Debrajâ€™s daughter after she entered the asylum; one could assume that she died there. His outrage over young Michelleâ€™s behavior and treatment could stem from how he viewed the way mental institutions treated people, and he refused to see Michelle become one of those people. At that point, she was angry at the world and reduced to a miserable existence with no potential or future. At the same time, so was Debraj. He was drunk who considered himself a failure as both a teacher and a father. He saw Michelle as his second chance and refused to even let her stop him. Eventually, she started to see him as his only chance, and it would take his sudden disappearance years later to make her realize that she had to be her own only chance. And then, when they reunite, she takes it upon herself to be his only chance.
I suppose that, since this is an Indian film, there was nothing stopping them from adding a fifteen minute segement showing Michelle in her teens, learning more and more while interacting with her younger sister. And maybe they could have added another fifteen minute segment showing how Michelle coped while in her thirties. Utimately, though, I think that the movie did what it needed to do and did it very well. I highly recommend this one.
WTF ASIA 95: Cyclo (Vietnam: 1995, approx. 125 minutes)
WTF ASIA 96: Solanin (Japan: 2010, approx. 125 minutes)
On the internet