Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen sees the tragedy in William Shakespeare’s comedy The Merchant of Venice. There are traces of horror too in the production designer’s directorial debut, in which a teenager comes of age in a culture that sanctions bullying, homophobia and silence about violence.
The bright and sensitive Shay (Ali Haji) is the main target of a wolf pack led by the resident jock of his boarding school. Arjun (Mohammad Ali Mir) is the kind of young man who commits his crimes to the lusty cheers of his followers, and Shay is his prized prey.
Among the reasons Arjun picks on boys like Shay and his portly friend Ganesh (Hardik Thakker) is because he can. Adult supervision appears to be lax at the Mount Noble High school. The teachers and wardens are none the wiser for what goes in after class and when the lights have been dimmed. Some of Arjun’s deeds are, in fact, committed in public glare – on the playground, in the canteen – but the excuse is that he is well-connected, as are his conspirators, including Baaadal (Shaan Groverr). Baaadal has a couple of extra As in his name because his father is superstitious, but no amount of numerology can fix Baaadal’s base nature.
Shay has the misfortune of being cast as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice. This is a role that Baaadal covets too, especially since it will bring him closer to Pia (Muskkaan Jafferi), Shay’s friend and among the few girls in the school. The play is being staged for the Founders’ Day function, and the charismatic drama teacher Murali (Kunaal Kapoor) exhorts his wards to put on good performances. Murali has some strange ideas about what constitutes an appropriate acting exercise for adolescents. He asks them to imagine how they would seek revenge on those who have wronged them; on another occasion, he encourages them to cast off their clothes .
We did warn you: the adults are merely guests at this supposedly elite institution, which is managed by a well-meaning but ineffectual principal (MK Raina) and his hard-drinking deputy (Ivan Rodrigues). The inability of the grown-ups to intervene when the bullying gets more brutal, and their lack of curiosity about the easily apparent bruises suffered by Shay and Ganesh, are big flaws in an otherwise intelligent screenplay.
Writers Vandana Kataria, Sunil Drego and Sonia Bahl sidestep the role played by the teaching establishment in contributing to bullying, but they are otherwise very astute in tracing Shay’s internal struggle to stop himself from becoming the monster that Arjun wants him to be.
The mostly English-language Noblemen, which is being distributed through PVR’s movie-on-demand platform Vkaoo, does an excellent job of picking up the cadences of adolescent speech. The beautifully cast young actors speak exactly as we might expect them to. Even Kunaal Kapoor seems relieved to be delivering dialogue in a language that comes more naturally to him than his Bollywood lines.
Although the climax is implausible, director Kataria’s ability to create a deeply felt and non-glamorous portrait of boarding school life is rarely in doubt. Kunaal Kapoor is perfectly adequate as the well-meaning teacher whose unconventional ways have unforeseen consequences. The movie’s star performer is Ali Haji, who turns out an acutely sensitive performance as Shay. Ali Mir, Shaan Grover, Muskkaan Jaferi and Hardik Thakker are also very convincing as the ones preying and being preyed upon.
The 110-minute movie makes many important points about the foundations of toxic male behaviour and the homophobia that lurks in the corridors of schools. “They will just go on and on,” Ganesh says about his tormentors, and his observation reaches out beyond the school’s walls. The deputy headmaster dismisses Shay’s rough treatment as a necessary rite of passage for boys to become men. The fates of Arjun and Shay suggest that he is perversely right.