Vandana Kataria’s directorial debut Noblemen was screened at the UK Asian Film Festival earlier this year.
The drama/thriller is a thematic representation of William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice.
The film is set amidst winter in a prestigious all boys’ boarding school.
Children continue to practice age-old rituals and codes bound by years of a hierarchy of the popular norm.
Shay (Ali Haji) is constantly picked on, the main perpetrators being Arjun (Mohammed Ali Mir), the tall athletic sports captain and his best friend Baadal (Shaan Grover).
Shay and Pia (Muskaan Jaferi); the spunky daughter of the new Junior School history teacher, are cast as Bassanio and Portia in the Founders Day production of Merchant of Venice.
But Baadal the son of a feigning movie star wants Pia and thus the role opposite her.
Murali (Kunal Kapoor), the charismatic drama teacher unknowingly adds salt to Baadal’s wounds by casting him as Shay’s understudy.
Indignant, Baadal vows to get Shay’s part at any cost and turns to his buddy Arjun, the school Sports Captain, to help him secure the role by ousting Shay.
It is a battle of wit against brawn, endurance against torture, courage against disgrace.
The bullies brutally victimise Shay hoping to break him so he willingly relents his role.
But Shay needs this role and will not budge, regardless of what they do.
However, events take a sinister turn when Murali notices Shay’s condition and intervenes to help him out.
Now, the whole school scorns upon him for being a ‘rat’ (informer).
Humiliated beyond repair Shay starts resenting Murali and begins to harbour a desire for revenge. This is the first step to his own undoing.
Merchant Of Venice: Theatre is like an Omnipresent Figure
The positive point is that the film does not get carried away with pointless backstories or sub-plots. It cuts straight to the chase.
Despite the backdrop of scenic and open atmosphere, the film makes us feel sick, suffocated and anxious due to the atrocities committed in the coming events.
To see how Kataria incorporates a ‘comedy’ into a hard-hitting socially relevant narrative is applaud-worthy.
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice outlines several themes including revenge, desperation and hate, amongst others.
If we think about William Shakespeare’s plays, all of them exude toxic masculinity, undermine women and all of them have a dark undertone.
In fact, Nobleman intrinsically is a revenge story and interestingly it draws several parallels with the Shakespeare play, besides the racism aspect.
The dialogue, “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction” forms the main turning point in the film’s narrative.
In the original play, Shylock’s character makes us question whether he is the antagonist or a victim and this question is repeated once again… Through Shay’s character.
Speaking of Shay’s character, the theatre, at one point becomes his escapism, passion and at the same time and arguably, his strength.
The vengeful traits in his role which also remind us of Hamlet. Thus, it is interesting how a modern boy of today exhibits Shakespearean characteristics.
As a result, it is almost like the theatre is an additional persona, like an omnipresent figure who is speechless but yet observant.
Plus, the play leaves us pondering whether justice was rightfully served and Noblemen seems to follow suit.
A Rare & Hard-Hitting Insight into Bullying & Other Issues
Bullying is a universal/rampant topic and Indian cinema, especially Bollywood, has covered this subject before.
For instance, Hostel and 3 Idiots focuses on ‘ragging’ whist Sixteen highlights the social pressures on today’s youths.
But in an era of rosy and exaggerated representations of school life in films like Student Of The Year, the west has managed to raise awareness of youth issues in ventures like 13 Reasons Why and Ma.
Noblemen, in that sense, is a breath of fresh air for Indian cinema as it covers bullying to the most serious degree.
From homophobia and drug abuse to rape, the film explores the most distressing aspects of bullying, in a sensitive way
But the movie transcends from being just a ‘bullying’ story. It tackles many topics and issues, (especially body-shaming) in an audacious manner.
Whilst the events might be unsettling to witness, they are a shocking occurrence in today’s world.
Though we live in a considerably ‘liberal’ society, it reflects how homosexuality is the biggest offence in this school and amidst the boys.
On many occasions, we see how the adults turn a blind eye to the events unfolding, which sadly happens in schools today.
It is blood-curdling to observe how so-called ‘mature adults’ act as mere spectators when youngsters are going down the completely wrong path. They really are weak and ignorant.
Whether it’s the victims speaking out or about the teachers taking action, it emphasises the culture of silence which is unjustifiably observed.
Everyone is shown to be stuck in a rut of some sort.
Well-Written Characters & Performances
Every character in Noblemen seems to have been inspired by the people we have encountered in our school time.
People who have been bullied will be able to closely relate to Shay.
Being an unpopular guy who prefers the creative over sports, I could strongly resonate with Shay… The facade, pain and anger are emotions which I faced when I was in school.
Ali Haji, (previously known for his role as the young Rehan in Fanaa) is first-rate. His innocent looks, yet formidable acting prowess scream excellence.
Though this is his first acting role as an adult, his performance proves that he is a seasoned actor.
The real show stealer here, though, is Mohammed Ali Mir – the narcissistic and evil bully, Arjun. His natural and normal demeanour is what really frightens the viewer.
We feel compelled to hate his toxic masculine character which means Mir has depicted his role well.
Kunal Kapoor is perfect as Murali the eccentric compassionate drama teacher. He organically steps into the shoes of the teacher.
From his dialogue command to the body language, he captures every nuance aptly… Though the character itself is quite questionable, especially through his teaching methods.
Shaan Groverr is also first-rate in playing Arjun’s side-kick, Baadal. Being an aspiring actor like his father, we see him quoting Bollywood dialogues.
Groverr gets that perfect balance in being filmy and enacting the part of a vile bully. He is a good actor.
Muskkaan Jafferi (daughter of legendary actor Jagdeep) is dynamite as Pia. When it comes to the emotional outbursts and build-up, she underplays the character so well.
Hardik Thakkar and Soni Razdan are also decent in their supporting roles.
What Could Be Improved?
Although a dark film, it is cinematically narrated well. However, is not for the faint-hearted.
The harsh reality is showcased in a blunt and horrific manner, but it is pivotal that this truth is shown.
Also, whilst it is not essential to know the Merchant Of Venice story, knowing the main storyline and characters can help to understand the characters’ depths… Especially in the ending.
Overall, Noblemen completely shatters the glass-ceilings regarding ‘taboo’ subjects and issues which impact the youth.
The incorporation of Shakespeare is ironic. Despite these being old texts, it highlights how characteristic traits and themes are prevalent in today’s day and age.
More than anything, it is imperative audiences understand the harsh reality behind the smart-looking school blazers. Strongly recommended!