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Notebook review: Impressive visuals of Kashmir can't cover up for shallow story-telling

Release Date: 29 Mar 2019 / Rated: U / 01hr 55min

Read in: Hindi | Marathi

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Blessy Chettiar

The mesmerizing photography and slick editing, sadly, become an excuse to divert your attention from what could have been an unforgettable romance of the old-school kind between newcomers Zaheer Iqbal and Pranutan Bahl.

There is something about the soul of Kashmir encapsulated in the Dal lake in Srinagar. A shikara gliding through matted water lilies, chinar leaves gracefully breaking away to make a bed of crackling amber on the ground, distant mountains carpeted with snow, a drone shot of the dreamy floating vegetable market and a woebegone local school on the lake are bewitching sights captured by Manoj Kumar Khatoi’s feckful camera for Notebook.

Sadly, the mesmerizing photography and slick editing become an excuse to divert your attention from what could have been an unforgettable romance of the old-school kind.

The paradox of beauty and strife in Kashmir is not lost on anyone. Thankfully, the screenplay by Darab Farooqui and dialogues by Sharib Hashmi and Payal Ashar keep the focus on the story and use adversity as a side track to send out positive messages.

The Kashmiri Pandit issue and a veiled mention of militancy are handled well, but none of these seem enough. An attempt to infuse humour at appropriate times is noteworthy, but it elicits nothing more than a snicker. The blame for this is the flat dialogue delivery and limited range of expressions of the otherwise good-looking lead pair (Zaheer Iqbal and Pranutan Bahl).

When former army man Kabir (Zaheer) learns that the school his father set up on a run-down houseboat in Kashmir needs a teacher, he hesitantly takes up the job. Cut off from the rest of the world and devoid of students, he goes with a local to gather students. An untrained Kabir barely knows how to deal with the kids, but they develop a liking for each other gradually.

When he finds the diary of the previous teacher Firdaus (Bahl) in the table drawer, he gets sucked into her pensive world, learning from her experiences on how to handle the children. One page after another of Firdaus’s experiences and affirmations like “I am enough” and “Thank you Universe” and Kabir is in love. Without knowing what she looks like, with only the clue of a Pole Star tattoo on her hand, he goes in search of Firdaus to the city, and returns dejected.

Through the diary we learn of Firdaus first and the backstory of Kabir later. Though the visuals and story (adapted from the 2014 Thai film Teacher’s Diary) bear witness to director Nitin Kakkar’s genuine intention and effort, the feeling of something being amiss never quite leaves the viewer. The film's runtime is barely two hours, even then the pace is slower than that of the shikaras. None of these act in the film’s favour.

It is the debut movie of the lead pair and to have an unhappy ending would have been criminal since this is a romantic drama in 'Bollywood'. Though they are cast opposite each other, Zaheer and Bahl get scenes together only in the last few minutes of the film. The time is too short to gauge if the chemistry between them is magical or nothing to write home about.

The screenplay smartly weaves in Kashmir’s challenge of keeping children from picking up arms without expounding righteousness. Both teachers are attached to the children, each of them getting considerable, exclusive screen time at different points. Be it the brilliant Imran or the grouchy Dua, the children are in their element, never being overdramatic (even when the school is destroyed in a storm).

The background score by Julius Packiam is lilting, often manipulating the viewer to feel an undeserved affinity towards the characters. The songs ‘Nai Lagda’ and ‘Safar’ by Vishal Mishra are memorable.

For a love story set in 2008, the theme, where the lovers get to know each other only through personal accounts in a diary, seems far-fetched. We are suckers for old-school romance through written accounts, but the lack of wholesomeness in Notebook’s romance leaves a void bigger than the majestic Dal. When the soul in romance is missing, there is little deft camerawork can do other than take you on a cheap trip to Kashmir and back from your theatre seat.

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