Inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Vandana Kataria’s English-language film Noblemen premiered on May 26th at the Kashish Film Festival. A tough film to watch, and, in the words of Ms Kataria herself, a tougher film to shoot, Noblemen tackles the age old practice of bullying, in this case, at a prestigious all-boys boarding school.
Starring Kunal Kapoor, Ali Haji, Mohammad Ali Mir, Muskaan Jaferi, Shaan Grover and Hardik Thakkar, the film deals with some extremely disturbing themes and demonstrates how an individual’s darker impulses can be brought to the forefront when they are pushed too far and don’t receive the help, be it physical or psychological, that they require. The students are putting on a performance of The Merchant of Venice for their school’s 150th Founder’s Day celebration. Ali Haji’s character (and the protagonist), Shay is cast as the lead role of Bassanio by the drama teacher, played by Kunal Kapoor, whose personal love for Shakespeare shines through in the movie.
Shay’s senior, Baadal, furious at being passed over by the role, vows to take it by any means necessary, asking his friend and the school’s sports captain Arjun to aid him in doing so. Things take a decidedly ominous turn as the bullying escalates. Although Shay is gay, it’s difficult to call this film an LGBT one, as it seems to cover a much broader spectrum of issues dealt with by adolescents. While homosexuality is a major focus in the film, it is not the main one. Shay is not the only student who is bullied, there are also his friends Ganesh, who is plus-size and Pia, daughter of the Junior School Principal. All three of them react to being bullied by other students in different ways, each of which has its’ own set of consequences, leading to a catastrophic chain of events.
This film also has a haunting representation of the honour code prevalent in all boarding schools and, indeed, in day schools as well – snitches end up in ditches. Complain to the teacher or ask for help, and you’ll be treated like a rat by the entire school. Do what your seniors demand or face their wrath. Prefects can and will abuse their power, what you do will affect what your classmates do to your friends, this leads to a vicious circle that never stops, because, in the film itself, these rituals are age-old and bound by a hierarchical structure that is both toxic and highly dangerous for the children who are entrusted to the school by their parents.
In many ways, Noblemen is a tale of revenge and retribution, but, as Confucius once said, ‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’ This statement is especially true for this film, which unveils a loss of innocence in ways previously unseen in an Indian film with characters as young as the ones in the film. Furthermore, there is a certain irony present in Noblemen: most LGBT movies, and again, I hesitate to call it that, are about coming out of the closet. This one is about staying in by any means necessary due to fear, shame, distrust, etc. As the headmaster of the school himself says when asked if he’s ever dealt with a queer student, ‘Homophobia and homosexuality go hand in hand,’ and he dreads what the first student who comes out will go through.
Noblemen boasts some stellar acting by Mohammad Ali Mir, Kunal Kapoor, Hardik Thakkar and Muskaan Jaffrey, but Ali Haji’s was outstandingly brilliant, his performance was raw and gritty and absolutely brilliant. The musical score matches the tone of the film to perfection, enhancing both dialogue and action. The cinematography is spontaneously organic and the prominent scenes are shot with a chilling precision that sends shivers down your spine.
All in all, Noblemen is a fantastic film but not, I think, suitable for anyone under sixteen, due to the rather graphic content. It’s a film that forces the audience to deal with some painful, horrifying truths which the Indian moviegoer would rather avoid due to their warped perception of masculinity and sexuality. It is, however, by virtue of the issues tackled, a must-watch and certainly a worthwhile one.