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Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Noblemen, Review: Merchant of menace

Noblemen, Review: Merchant of menace

Children in a classy public school are preparing a play for Founders’ Day, and the work chosen for the occasion is William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Our protagonist has been selected to play Bassanio, after an audition, and is waiting anxiously for the staging. His mother, a former Wing Commander, now confined to a wheel-chair, is likely to be cured in a short time, and hopes to attend her son’s big day, for the first time ever. Only, there is another boy, a pal of the school bully, who has set his eyes on the very same role, and the bully will go to any length to help his friend realise his goal. No holds are barred, no torture ruled out. Like its antagonist, Noblemen hits hard, and hits below the belt. Literally.

Mount Noble High, a prestigious boarding school in the hills of north India, has the usual mix of bullies and victims, good teachers and bad teachers, drug addicts and gifted students. It is an all boys’ school, the only exceptions being the daughters of the teachers. King Bully, the football prodigy Arjun, rules the roost, subjects his targets to mental and physical torture, and nobody does a thing about it.

Arjun wants his side-kick Baadal, son of a wannabe film-star, to get Shay’s role, while Baadal desires Pia as the icing on the cake. Among all this, a platonic love blossoms between Shay and a teacher’s daughter, the spunky Pia, who is Portia in the play. The girl, like her mother, Shruti Sharma, has been subjected to violent physical abuse that has left deep scars on her body, and both mother and daughter have distanced themselves from the man of the house, against whom they lodged a police complaint as well.

Murali, the charismatic drama teacher who is directing the play, on Baadal’s insistence, unknowingly adds salt to his ‘wounds’, by casting him as Shay’s understudy. The bullies brutally victimise Shay, hoping to break him, so that he would have no choice to back-out from the role. They also make life hell for Shay’s buddy, the grossly overweight Ganesh. But Shay needs this role, and will not budge, no matter what they do. Two events then trigger off a chain reaction that will lead to death on the campus: firstly, Shay finds himself physically aroused by Murli and senses the early signs of his homosexuality; secondly, he is brutally ‘raped’ by Arjun, using a sex toy, an experience that he reluctantly shares with Murli.

Director Vandana Kataria, a National Institute of Design graduate, has co-written the script, along with Sonia Bahl and Sunil Drego. Kataria makes her debut as both writer and director, having hitherto held positions as production designer and second unit director. Born and raised in Kolkata, Sonia Bahl has lived and worked in Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Jakarta, Miami, Brussels, Johannesburg and Singapore. After serving as Creative Director in advertising, she turned to writing novels, and Noblemen marks her screen-writing debut. Drego was associate writer on the TV series 24: India, during 2016.

As a lecturer for 34 years, while I have come across some educational institutes with bullies and drug-abusers among the students, and a couple of suicides were reported from one of them, I shudder to think that there could be, in reality, the kind of school depicted in the film. For the innocenti, I would like to believe that the film is a collective work of fiction, assimilated by M/s Bahl, Kataria (boarding school educated) and Drego, where incidents are grossly exaggerated only for cinematic effect. Sticking to English as the film’s language, interspersed only occasionally with Hindi, was the right choice, given the snooty image of the school. Gandhi House being the name of the group which is the epicentre of the story is an irony that will not be lost on anybody.

As director, Kataria is raw and needs to work on her cutting points. It appears that the unit may have conducted extended workshops to get the performances to ring true, especially scenes involving Shakespearean dialogue and (almost) full frontal male nudity. Which brings me to the point about nudity. During a rehearsal, Murli conveys to his actors that one of the things holding them back is inhibition, so they should all strip naked. But he quickly adds, “No, not the girls. Only the boys.” This goes against the grain and spirit of the film.

There are at least three scenes where the male character(s) is/are in the process of stripping, but are saved in the nick of time, either by the proverbial bell, or by clever framing. Whether India’s Central Board of Film Certification have allowed frontal nudity, male or female, is a separate debate altogether. As it stands, they have allowed full nudity, though not frontal, and since the boy in the buff is tubby, flabby Ganesh, the scene is visually all the more gross, to say the least. One scene, where Shay stares for so long that you think the video file has gone into stop mode, deserves special mention.

You might not have seen Kunal Kapoor play anything like Murli, and he does a serviceable job of it. The character is not fully developed, except for mentions that he gave up a lucrative career to become a teacher, and a couple of scenes that show him practicing oriental martial art. The latter contradicts his inability to face a bunch of three or four bullies, when he charges upon them at full throttle. His capitulation is quite out of character. Delhi-based veteran M.K. Raina, who has done a lot of theatre, is cast as the HeadMaster, tellingly named M.K. Dehlvi. Except for a couple of occasions, he delivers English almost as well as he would speak Hindi or Urdu.

Ali Haji (19; now grown up child star, theatre actor) plays 15 year-old Shay with remarkable panache. It is not easy, being graceful in a victim act, but Ali manages just that. Muskkaan Jaferi, (briefly seen in the series The Good Karma Hospital), daughter of talented comedian Jagdeep, and half-sister of Javed Jaaferi, shines through, in a relatively small role. She is able speak her Shakespearean dialogue in fluent English, without an affected accent, and offers the middle finger when the situation so demands. Why did they have to make her sit outside her home and talk to her mother through a window, who is never shown, beats me. And the mother’s voice is heard in a manner that would qualify as ‘indistinct chatter’ in sub-titles.

Slick, suave and inherently evil, Mohammed Ali Mir as Arjun has barely one scene of redemption in the entire film. Yet, there is a lot to admire in the actor, who never betrays any self-consciousness while indulging in the most dastardly acts. Merely one step behind him is Shan Groverr (former second unit director, theatre actor and Dubsmash video veteran, making his feature acting debut) as Baadal, who revels in mouthing vulgarities and expletives. It takes some guts and gumption to expose your body, get body-shamed and grovel at the feet of bullies, and Hardik Thakkar as Ganesh is up to the task. Ivan Rodrigues is well cast as the alcoholic Deputy HeadMaster, the counter-point to Murli, who speaks only in polished English. Lastly, we have the rarely seen Soni Razdan, all of 62, cast as Shruti Sharma. She looks haggard, but then what would you expect a wheel-chair bound air-force veteran to look like?

Three songs are used in the film, all from the repertoire of Saregama, the parent company of Yoodlee films, which produced the film. Two are Mohammed Rafi tracks from the Shammi Kapoor starrer Junglee, used for effect, and the third is a rephrasing of the all-time classic of Guru Dutt angst, ‘Yeh duniya agar mil bhee jaaye to kya hae’, from Pyaasa, also rendered by Rafi as only he could. Cinematography by Ramanuj Dutta needed better control of the camera and editing by Simranjeet Singh Malhotra is jerky on occasion. Moreover, the 121 minute length needed some pruning, as sequences are often repetitive, possibly in an attempt to reinforce the intensity.

A pre-title statement, setting the scene for the drama that is going to unfold, reads, "A monster, when left unchecked, creates an even bigger monster." Prosaic, lofty, rhetoric and vague at the same time, the premise strikes little consonance with the story, except for the fact that monster evil has its share of presence at Mount Noble. The quote, untraceable on the Internet, has to be attributed to one of the three writers.

Noblemen, derived from the school’s name, is a misnomer, not being so much about nobility as it is about ignobility. Visually appealing, in spite of a preponderance of indoor scenes, the film stretches a thin story line in zig-zag mode, before arriving at a swimming pool climax that is probably aimed at organic unity. It is bold, impudent and disturbing. All that, however, does not add up to rivetting cinema. Largely salvaged by above par portrayals, it is can be categorised as a good first effort. Without that qualification, it falls short of expectations, flattering to deceive.

While Noblemen is a reimagined, reincarnated Merchant of Venice, which will go well with the title Merchant of Menace, substituting the pro with the anta gonist, let me end this review with an excerpt from the real thing: Act III, Scene 2, Line 1392, spoken by Bassanio, a role I had occasion to essay in my last year of school:

“None but that ugly treason of mistrust,

Which makes me fear the enjoying of my love...”

Rating: **



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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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