Director: Vandana Kataria
Cast: Ali Haji, Kunal Kapoor, Muskaan Jaferi, Mohommad Ali Mir, Shaan Grover, M.K. Raina, Ivan Rodrigues
Perhaps the biggest compliment one can offer to Vandana Kataria’s feature-film debut – a modern The Merchant of Venice adaptation – is that it acquires a life of its own, a subversive identity of its own. Noblemen is immaculately detailed, nicely performed, relentlessly frank and offers testimony to the fact that originality lies in the (sociocultural) eyes of the beholder. There is an inherent familiarity to the story, its form, that “triggers” on a fundamental psychological level.
A campus tale with a twist, Noblemen pivots on the theme of bullying to frame the tragic circularity of revenge. The setting is Mount Noble High, a convent boarding school in the hills – that is, an environment where human nature is still young and reactionary, where right and wrong are still rules of a regime, where values are bred in context of peer pressure and clannishness…a phase of life naturally prone to the primal “Shakespearean-ness” of emotional upheaval. The power dynamic in hostels thrives on the ‘us against them’ narrative, with ragging often used as a perverse device to establish a sense of solidarity and belonging. Shay (a promising Ali Haji), the protagonist, is the subject of much scorn from his seniors; he is the first tenth-grader to be cast as Bassanio for the Annual Day’s Merchant of Venice stage performance. The dramatics teacher, Mr. Murali (an appropriately cast Kunal Kapoor), is encouraging of the boy’s talent.
I like that Shay’s rival, a senior angling for Bassanio’s role, is a Bollywood superstar’s bratty son. He has three a’s in his name: Baaadal. Given the mainstream film industry’s notorious attitude towards art and sensitivity, it’s no surprise that Baaadal (Shaan Grover) is the one who gives Shay labels of “gayboy” and “teacher’s pet”. He is the commercialism corrupting the mountain air’s infectious creativity. And it’s only natural that Baaadal stands on the sordid shoulders of football star and all-round bully, Arjun (Mohommad Ali Mir), a Real Madrid fan who idolizes Cristiano Ronaldo. The two boyish villains have a penchant for the theatrical, almost as if they were auditioning for the roles of characters Baaadal’s father must often fight on screen. They are Ronaldo and Ramos, unlike Shay’s more sober Batman to his best friend’s Robin. Their vices are a bit stereotypical (drugs, alcohol, porn, cybersex), but boarding schools are where caricatures are born.
Owing to their invasive personalities, you believe Shay when he tells his fellow ‘outcasts’ – an obese boy (Hardik Thakkar, as Ganesh) and a spunky girl (Muskaan Jaferi, as Pia) – that being a connoisseur of culture is harder than being fat or female in the all-boys Noble High School. You believe that Shay would rather be tormented every day than be called a snitch. And you reluctantly believe that it’s necessary to show – in vividly disturbing scenes – just how far Arjun is willing to go in order to break Shay’s determination. The conversations between Mr. Murali and the headmaster (M.K. Raina) lend an empathy to Shay’s journey. To his struggle of preserving a school’s false sense of brotherhood. The men say the right things, support the right ideas: the “good adults” in a land spiralling out of their gentle control.
The director is otherwise unerring in her gaze of the school’s not-so-noble ways. The repetitiveness, I believe, is necessary to inform Shay’s coming-of-rage arc. The sodomy, repressed sexual orientations, the barbarianism of the bullies – these images go beyond the ordinary and expose the social realities enabled by an archaic education system. By making Shay someone who is conflicted with the status of his own heroism, the film stops short of romanticizing the victim’s mentality. The choice of winter as the season, too, is not without thought – the chill forces the characters to “wear” more layers, both literally and figuratively, and increases the significance of water (a recurring theme, in toilets and pools, to depict Shay’s gradual descent) in context of suffering. Given Kataria’s background as a fine production designer, it’s these stylistic details that define the language of Noblemen. Even the smaller things: A weighing scale near Ganesh’s dorm bed, the creatures from Maurice Sendark’s Where The Wild Things Are painted on campus walls, a “John Jarvis” hall, an intense violin riff calming down as a stage actor slowly comes out of character, even something as simple as a Skype profile photo reflecting the backstory of Shay’s paralyzed mother.
All of which goes to say that Noblemen is located in a world that is not limited by the literature it interprets. Often, filmmakers are so needlessly reverential of the traditional source material that they end up compromising on the fabric of their own film’s universe, their own voices, to accommodate the grammar of a Shakespeare or even a Chetan Bhagat. Adapting a book doesn’t necessarily mean being loyal to its themes – at times, as in this case, the words merely provide a foundation on which an entirely new language can be conceived. The literature might be important to the filmmaker, but as Noblemen proves, it shouldn’t be quite as important to the viewer. All we should see is a dark cautionary tale of an India that struggles to control the last structures of colonial learning. All we see is Shay breaking free to become his own merchant of menace.