Interview Hindi

Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen isn’t a feel-good story but a cautionary tale


Production designer-turned-filmmaker Vandana Kataria's debut film is her interpretation of Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice set in an all-boys boarding school.

Director Vandana Kataria

Sahil Bhalla

It was last year, at the New York Indian Film Festival, that lead actor Ali Haji won the Best Child Actor award for his role in Noblemen.

After being premiered in New York, the film has been to many festivals across the world. Noblemen, by production designer-turned-director Vandana Kataria, most recently played at the 14th Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi.

Kataria’s agents told her that the Yoodlee Films banner, under Saregama, was looking for writers and directors to adapt world literature that exists in the public domain into contemporary Indian films.

Originally, Kataria had an idea of a story set in the world of thieves and thugs in her city, Mumbai. But soon enough she realized she wanted to tell a story in a setting that was more relatable and relevant.

The debut feature is inspired by The Merchant of Venice, a play some consider William Shakespeare’s most controversial. It is Kataria’s interpretation of the play. Noblemen, set in an all-boys boarding school in Mussoorie, tells the story of bullying in school with many other issues at hand. The film was shot over two schools in Mussoorie which were made to look like one.

"The film is not based on any true story but may have references to the truth,” Kataria said in a post-screening discussion at the India Habitat Centre. The film is part autobiographical as Kataria herself graduated from an all-girls boarding school. So she was very familiar with the world she had built on screen.

Kunal Kapoor in a scene from Noblemen

The themes of humiliation, oppression and revenge of the humiliated is what drew Kataria to such a film. The play has undertones of homosexuality and in Noblemen the issue plays a big role. Some of Kataria’s crew were homosexual. Upon reading the script, one of the members was really moved. He shared horror stories with Kataria. She was shocked upon hearing these stories.

The director admits the film has flaws, but said there was no point fixing them. “Will try and correct them [minimise my flaws] in my next film,” Kataria said. In an interview with Cinestaan.com, Vandana Kataria spoke about the ending of Noblemen, whether it is a feel-good story, and the next film she has signed under the RSVP banner. Excerpts:

You have been a production designer, an assistant director, and with Noblemen, a director and a writer. Can you tell me more about how this transformation/journey has been?

I always wanted to direct. I have directed commercials and music videos even between the feature films I designed. Thus a foray into writing/directing long format was only inevitable. The journey isn't over yet, this is just my first film, hopefully many more to come.

Do you think the ending of Noblemen is abrupt or is that how you intended it to be in the first place?

No, this is the ending that was conceived. However, when we were shooting I had proposed another slightly less shocking end to Ali, the actor playing Shay. And he said that "Shay has no other option, he has to do this, I have to do this", so I went ahead with the original ending.

In any which way, does this come out as a feel-good story? The film certainly lures the viewer in with its style commitment to realism.

Not feel-good, but definitely a cautionary tale. Like I said in the Q&A, there are three bullied kids in the film, we are familiar with the two other reactions — self-harm and legal recourse — that a bullied kid can have (Pia, Ganzu), but I wanted to draw your attention to the third and far more dangerous reaction, which is the protagonist Shay's reaction. A case where monsters create monsters. Where violence begets violence. Where good wins over evil, but only after it becomes evil itself.

Do you think this is "too dark" a film to be commercially appreciated? There was laughter from the audience even during some of the uncomfortable scenes.

I was surprised at some of the laughter, but I think it came from discomfort. The film is bound to get some angry reactions, and frankly I am happy with any definitive reaction, as long as there is some reaction. And I think the film does that, even if polarized.

Does the film draw parallels to the political environment at the present, specifically the bullying on social media websites like Twitter?

Yes, most certainly. And today we just re-elected a totalitarian regime to its second term. Noblemen is about such a totalitarian microcosm where "...boys need to be disciplined to become men by force of law...".

Can you shed some light on what your next project(s) will be?

My next film has been signed with RSVP, a dysfunctional family drama set in a matriarchal home in Kerala, across three generations of women.

I have just completed two more scripts, a comedy and a thriller. And [there are] some commissioned projects as a director in the pipeline.

Noblemen was screened at the 14th Habitat Film Festival at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre on 22 May 2019.

Related topics

Habitat Film Festival