Noblemen Review: A sensitive look at internalised violence
Vandana Kataria’s high school drama is brittle and affecting, a cautionary tale looking to expose the trigger points of violence
It’s been a while since an Indian campus film took itself seriously. Like last month’s Student of the Year 2, Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen also follows high-schoolers in the runup to an Annual Day event at a mountain school. But unlike in that Tiger Shroff movie, performative masculinity isn’t a gold star for its 15-year-old protagonist; it’s a rudimentary organ at best, a vestigial limp to be acknowledged and tamed.
Almost everything about ‘Mount Noble High’ — its leafy walkways curling out to the dorms, the anti-drug pinups in the common room — is invariably tied to the inner world of Shay (Ali Haji), a tenth-grader selected to play Bassanio in an upcoming The Merchant of Venice production. This naturally creates a lot of problems for Shay. First, he invites the ire of his seniors: bully-squad leader Arjun and his sidekick Baaadal, a film family brat who lobbied for the part. Then, more damningly, Shay finds himself attracted to the dramatics instructor, Murali (Kunal Kapoor, surprisingly credible as a young Tamilian).
Director: Vandana Kataria
Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Ali Haji
In most Indian boarding schools, the line between a victim and a misfit is appallingly thin. In one scene, Shay lords over his only friends: a chirpy, plus-sized boy named Ganesh and a girl called Pia. “Hate this place… nothing worse than being a girl in an all-boys school,” frets Pia, to which Ganesh retorts, “Yeah right, try being a fat dark boy like me.” Looking away from them, Shay, a beat later, has the last word. “You guys have nothing. Try being a boy who likes drama and literature and can’t do well in sports.”
Vandana, who has worked as a production designer before, finds evocative ways to communicate Shay’s personality visually. Not far from the protagonist of the Donna Tartt novel, he too finds consolation in a rescued finch (a breathing, actual one), and starts petting it in secrecy. His non-belligerent nature is broken in a scene where he growls aggressively at a crowd, as part of a rehearsal workshop. Ali (Fanna, Ta Ra Rum Pum) is sensitive towards the part, and I wish the film was more trusting of his arc; all his silent eloquence is cancelled by other actors speaking in jarringly expository tone (Kunal avowing aloud, “Aren’t teachers supposed to be agents of change?” and later, “Fear empowers bullies.”)
The film coils up heavily towards the end. There’s a big churn in the third act that echoes a Scandinavian masterpiece too closely to be taken on its own terms. Yet, if you were looking for them, the signs were all there. The psychological progressions all add up, even if the logical ones fade. Slowly but certainly, the film reveals its inner wound — the wintry-hued mountainscape, the old Hindi film songs, all fade away as mere setup. This is a cautionary tale in the most exposing sense, a dark tale that dares to present itself darkly. It’s perhaps the greatest Shakespearean move Noblemen has stashed up its sleeves. These violent delights have violent ends.