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Noblemen review: Stomach-churning tale of bullying in a boys' boarding school

Release Date: 26 May 2018 / Rated: A / 01hr 51min

Read in: Hindi

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Sahil Bhalla

Some may say Noblemen is a feel-good story, but one needs to look under the surface to realize it isn’t.

Vandana Kataria’s debut feature Noblemen, inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is a tough movie to watch, and was, as Kataria says, even tougher to shoot.

Noblemen is set in Noble Valley High, a posh boys' boarding school in Mussoorie, and tackles the uncomfortable subject of bullying. Boys in their teenage years can be volatile and the extent to which they go to get what they want can be dangerous, to say the least.

A 150th Founder’s Day production of The Merchant of Venice is at the crux of the story. Tenth-grader Shay (Ali Haji) is cast in the lead role of Bassanio in the play by the school’s drama teacher Murali (Kunal Kapoor).

Ali Haji and Muskkaan Jaferi in Noblemen

Badal (Shaan Grover), son of a famous actor, is raging with jealousy when he realizes Shay has been cast opposite Pia (Muskkaan Jaferi), the girl he wants to sleep with, and vows to use any means necessary to get the role. Badal gravitates toward the school’s sports captain Arjun (Mohammad Ali Mir), asking him for help in his quest. Badal, Arjun and their lackeys run around the school’s grounds asserting their dominance.

Shay, meanwhile, finds a companion in Ganzu (Hardik Thakkar). Shay is sexually confused while Ganzu is overweight. They are castaways. People on the margins. Easy targets, as some would say.

Shay has many positive qualities, generosity, queerness, feminity, humility, kindness, and it is these that have drawn him closer to Ganzu and Pia, two people who have for long suffered in silence and desolation. And it is these that the bullies seek to rob him of.

Kataria draws the viewers to a third type of response to bullying, a type we may not all be familiar with, and that’s what gives this film its edge. There are the self-harm and legal recourse (Ganzu and Pia, respectively) that are known to most of us. It is the third type that is far more dangerous and prompts the chain of reactions that unfolds in the second half. It comes as a surprise even to a seasoned viewer. “A case where monsters create monsters. Where violence begets violence. Where good wins over evil, but only after it becomes evil itself,” as Kataria describes the third reaction depicted in Noblemen.

Noblemen is a film where queerness, sexuality, and homophobia come to the forefront just enough for the viewer to sit up and notice. The subject is handled with tenderness by the director and her trio of screenwriters — Sonia Bahl, Sunil Drego and Kataria herself. Shay is forced to be quiet, but it is his body language that does the talking.

Kataria’s camera also does the talking in the movie. A lot of scenes featuring Arjun and Shay are seen through the lens of queerness because of how the camera places the two — the physical closeness — in its frame. It’s not just seen but very much felt.

Arjun, though, as always, turns this upside down by asserting his dominance through violence and cruelty. There is a scene where Arjun is reprimanded by his father and thereafter heads into a downward spiral where his bullying gets more and more barbaric. There are a couple of scenes involving bullying that may put off the average viewer, but one can see the rationale behind Kataria’s decision to show and not just tell.

Kunal Kapoor in a scene from Noblemen

Noblemen is about the effects of bullying on not just the purveyor but also the victim. It is a world stripped of its kindness. Even when you think the bullies and not just the victims can be kind, you would be wrong. Kataria’s world — which is representative of thousands of school and college horror stories — is a mirror to what’s going on around us. It is a world where innocence isn’t welcome. Kataria herself is a graduate of a girls' boarding school.

When Shay takes a turn for the worse and goes on a mission of revenge is when Noblemen becomes stomach churning. It’s harder once Shay has been turned inside out. One is intrigued by just how far the monster can be pushed.

Noblemen has some stellar performances from its cast — Mohammad Ali Mir, Kunal Kapoor, Hardik Thakkar, Muskkaan Jaferi and Ali Haji. Kunal Kapoor is excellently understated as Murali. He tries to play the role without stepping into the limelight and makes sure he doesn’t take anything away from the other not-so-well-known artistes. Ali Haji is a standout, especially in the intense bullying scenes. His performance is the rawest of the group of artistes.

One needs to give a shout-out to the background score. It matches the tone and pacing of the film just about to perfection, giving us the chilling effect of things to come. While the boarding school was as realistic as possible (fun fact: the film was shot across two boarding schools in Mussoorie), and some of the camerawork is excellent, one still feels a little let down by the cinematography. There are a couple of scenes that feel like they aren’t on a par with the rest of the movie.

Ali Haji in Noblemen

Some may say it is a feel-good story, but one needs to look under the surface to realize it isn’t. Noblemen is a worthy watch that will not be appreciated by many, unfortunately, with the subject material at hand and the ‘show and don't just tell’ attitude from the director. It’s a big deal that such a film has not gone straight to over-the-top platforms to be consumed at home. At an hour and 49 minutes, none of the scenes seem stretched out.

The graphic nature of the movie will ensure that Noblemen will be confined only to those audiences seeking a not-so-traditional movie and willing to take the leap into the world of uncomfortable viewing. It’s a film that makes the audience sit up and ponder. Kataria forces the viewer to deal with and discuss the issues at hand long after the movie has ended.

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

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Habitat Film Festival

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