Notebook Review: Bad writing sinks this passable romance
Despite cinematographer Manoj Kumar Khatoi painting some pretty frames, the film remains empty
It's baffling how Hindi cinema — now at the tail end of another decade — keeps finding new workarounds to onscreen physical intimacy. In Notebook, Kabir (debutant Zaheer Iqbal) finds himself drawn to Firdaus (debutant Pranutan Bahl). He has never seen or touched her, and unlike the sedate middle-aged protagonists of The Japanese Wife or The Lunchbox, lets the frustration get to him. “If you ever miss me,” he writes at one point in Firdaus’ journal, “Just touch the rope tied to the school bell. It’s what I do when I miss you.”
Cast: Pranutan Bahl, Zaheer Iqbal
Director: Nitin Kakkar
I cringed. Not only is it sad to watch young hormones squandered thus, but the thought of two school teachers, in separate timelines, tossing off to a piece of rope while holding back recess, is deeply disturbing. Producer Salman Khan has championed Notebook as a clean romance (he famously refuses to kiss in his own movies), but it’s perhaps unwise to replace bad teachers with heavily bored ones.
Physicality creates other problems for Kabir. He’s a former army officer who returns to civilian life as the new instructor of Wular Public School, a remote establishment in the backwaters of Kashmir. On his first day, he finds a notebook left behind by the previous teacher, Firdaus, and starts flipping through the pages. The film appears stripped of any ‘launch film’ showboating (for the first few scenes, it just shows boats), until an utterly needless fight scene breaks. Zaheer leaps and kicks and even blocks punches with a fractured arm. The effect is no less jarring than the jolt felt by the character. It soon becomes clear that Notebook — for all its postcard framings and poetic peg — is still very much about one thing: introducing two new faces to the world, and serving as their showreel.
Pranutan, granddaughter of Nutan and daughter of Mohnish and Aarti Bahl, approaches her scenes rigidly. As the spirited educationist, she gets burdened by lines like, “We forget words, but remember actions,” and “…this is a new chapter, a stronger me, a better me.” The steady onslaught of intercuts (though well managed by editor Sachindra Vats), defuses the mystery of Firdaus. We are never told what exactly endears her to Kabir — if it’s just her words, scribbled in childlike cursive and illustrated with crayons, or her tragic backstory, which charts a course close to his.
The children are a big relief, and, at most times, far better than the leads. Child actor Soliha Maqbool packs a special punch as the ever-dismissive Shama; her cherubic facepalms pretty much do the job for you. Cinematographer Manoj Kumar Khatoi stirs some rare magic with his frames. Still, like the majority of our mainstream movies, Notebook remains undeserving of its landscape. It does engage gingerly with the politics of Kashmir (young Kabir, a Kashmiri pandit, is bullied off from a cricket pitch; in another scene, a boatman, answering a query about network connectivity, blames bad ‘mausam’ and bad ‘maahaul’.) But all of this is thumbed through in such a simplistic, vacant manner that even the film’s “message” — despite the acute timeliness — comes across as reductive.
I was mildly stumped when Firdaus, chewing over the Hindi proverb “Subha ka bhula agar shyam ko ghar aajaye..”, wonders about those who return in the afternoon. It’s the sort of philosophical curveball I didn’t expect Notebook to throw, so perhaps there’s more to this teacher than meets the eye. After all, she seems like a person who would value a well-earned star. Out of love for Bumbro, here’s a reluctant two.