Director: Nitin Kakkar
Cast: Zaheer Iqbal, Pranutan Bahl
Nitin Kakkar is just three films old, but his filmography already reveals a director who has touched all sides of the access spectrum. You sense his soul being sold a little more with each successive title. His first, Filmistaan (2014), hinged on clever writing and spirited newcomers (Sharib Hashmi, Inaamulhaq) to compensate for a visible lack of scale and technical ingenuity. His second, Mitron, was a middle-of-the-road comedy starring Jaccky Bhagnani. His latest, Notebook, is a Salman Khan production; it relies on every-frame-is-a-painting shotmaking and nifty production design to compensate for flimsy writing and wooden newcomers.
Teacher’s Diary, the Thai movie Notebook is adapted from, is centred on a remote houseboat-cum-school and two successive teachers who fall in love with and derive inspiration from each other’s personal diaries. Naturally then, the setting morphs into Kashmir here. Could have been Kerala, but try making a Hindi film unit survive on South Indian food for more than three days. The houseboat is more of an abandoned island on which a ramshackled wooden cottage resembles an aesthetically “messy” public school with mossy walls, gloomy windows, a panoramic view and a cinematic boardwalk – think Miss Havasham’s hideout remodeled as an Airbnb getaway (“Experience the no-electricity, no-gas, no-phone life of love and fresh air in Dal Lake”). The kids are light-eyed and fair, the kind Bajrangi Bhaijaan might have made a franchise out of rescuing. Moreover, Kashmir is for the lyrical names, Kabir and Firdaus, lest we forget the land’s tragic Paradise-Lost legends. The names are arguably the most romantic part of this love story.
Kabir is an ex-soldier who begins “teaching” five students at the middle-of-nowhere public school. To be fair, it’s more of a recreational tuition centre, but the definition of education is rather loose in this country. He discovers the previous teacher’s (Pranutan Behl) diary – which, to be fair, is more of a motivational speech book interspersed with her own life experiences. Kabir goes from grumpy to game, despite the actor’s theatrical inertia suggesting that there is very little between these two states of existence. The film is at its easiest when we see both narratives unravelling simultaneously – a neat little play on timelines, mildly reminiscent of love across dimensions in The Lake House (2006). Their heartbreaks and tribulations merge into one, as if they were occupying the school at the same time. Kabir’s breakup is particularly amusing; the director’s passion for cinema – an old bewafa song fills the rickety rickshaw that Kabir trails his cheating girlfriend in – shines through, a trait that was more or less the core of Filmistaan.
Teacher’s Diary, the Thai movie Notebook is adapted from, is centred on a remote houseboat-cum-school and two successive teachers who fall in love with and derive inspiration from each other’s personal diaries.
But then you begin to sense the burden of the setting. The politics of the region is forced into the airy doodles of Notebook through Kabir’s super-slow-mo army flashbacks, Firdaus’ intolerant boyfriend and a child’s violent father. Snakes, storms and floating dead bodies double-drive home the island as an allegory of Kashmir. You can sense exactly when Kakkar, who has an eye for atmosphere, heavily compromises to retain his producer’s faith – not least with the casting of the young debutants, the Being Human kind of kiddie anthems, and especially when Zaheer Iqbal randomly breaks into Bumro-remix dance moves to prove that his legs move more than his facial muscles.
The story might have even been a cutesy take on loneliness and virtual companionship if the writing had bothered to focus on the psychology of the protagonists. At one point, Kabir writes that whenever he misses Firdaus, he holds the rope of the schoolbell as if it were her hand. At another point, he hugs a pillar, too. His eyes roll over. I’m only happy we weren’t made to see what else he felt like “holding” when the craving got worse. Moreover, you keep wondering why Kabir just doesn’t ask someone – the kids or his boss – where Firdaus went, instead of waiting till the second half to inform us that she is not dead. Never mind that he can’t teach for nuts. But of course, studies isn’t Notebook’s priority. The students (of the year) are. Because this is, after all, just another pretty launch vehicle.