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A tale of tormented teenagers

A new coming-of-age film explores the theme of bullying in a boarding school and also touches upon homosexuality

Adolescence is a vulnerable time in one’s life. We go through changes of various sorts — both external and internal. During this transition period, everyone needs love, care, affection — and most importantly, the right guidance. But what if someone is subjected to brutality during this period? What if he/she is bullied and has no one to confide in? This is the theme debutant director Vandana Kataria’s film explores.

Structured as a psychological thriller, a coming-of-age drama, Noblemen deals with the very important — but often hushed behind closed doors — issue of bullying and its far-reaching consequences, especially on impressionable minds. The film, inspired by Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, revolves around 15-year-old Shay (played by Ali Haji).

Shot in idyllic and serene Mussoorie against the backdrop of a prestigious boarding school, it shows the relationships that he forges with his peers and teachers as he sets about navigating the tricky passageways of adolescence. He is terrorised by a gang of bullies in his school, as he has landed the leading role in the Founder’s Day production of Merchant of Venice. Apart from bullying, the film also deals with issues like homosexuality.

Talking about his character, Haji says, “I think for me, and whatever I discussed with Vandana, Shay stands for a lot of good virtues. He is strong, sensitive, affectionate and very much in touch with his feminine side — that also sets him apart from others in a very testosterone-driven all boys’ boarding school. Perhaps, this is the reason he is picked up and bullied. He faces a lot throughout the story and all his virtues are eventually put under question.”

Initially, when then the filmmaker approached him, he was sceptical. He wondered whether he could pull it off because he believed there are moments in the film which are dark. On the other hand, he found the story powerful and was engaged to it. “For me, as an actor, it was one of the most challenging roles that I have done because Shay goes through a lot through the course of the story. To bring out all that was indeed challenging. So, I had to bring out intense emotions and tap into certain dark places inside my head — it was tough but I enjoyed every bit of it,” adds Haji.

We must all come together to stand up against bullying in any form. Filmmaker Vandana Kataria believes Noblemen is a step in that direction seen through the adolescent eyes of its teenage protagonist and the world he inhabits. Since the film deals with a sensitive topic, she felt it was important for the actors themselves to understand how crucial the issue was and so that they could all deal with it sensitively and not in a scandalising way. “Because we have young adults in the film, the main thing was to sensitise them about this issue, so that they don’t feel like they are doing something bold just for the sake of it,” says Kataria.

As it turned out, the whole filming process was “humbling” for her. “I have always been on the other side, where the responsibility has been upon me to do my job. Now, I had to give responsibilities to other people to do their jobs. I felt really humbled that a crew came together to work on one common goal and how we all aligned to achieve that goal. That was very heart-warming to go through,” confesses Kataria.

“We adults need to engage with the bully when they are children. Otherwise, you can never help them and they will grow up to be worse bullies and bigger monsters. If you think about it, everybody in the #MeToo movement who were called out, in their childhood, also they must have been some sort of bullies – that’s why they grew up to be such people. And they were not checked, they were not handled carefully with love and care in childhood. That is why they turned out to be like this,” she believes.

Well-known actor Kunal Kapoor plays the role of the school’s drama teacher — who has radical ideas on bringing about change in education and schooling. Elaborating on why he chose to work in this film, he says,  “Bullying and the subsequent mental, physical and emotional scars it leaves — is a theme that our movies haven’t really explored. In our movies, schools and colleges are usually perfect. But life isn’t. It’s the imperfect world that is real.”

He adds, “This is about that imperfect world and the challenges that kids face every day in school, that can either make them stronger or destroy them. It’s also an insider’s view into bullying, and the monsters it creates. My director Vandana grew up in a boarding  and has seen and experienced many of the things you see in the film.”

There has been concern in media about bullying in schools, colleges and even offices. Bullying in any form and across all spheres – whether it’s the ubiquitous online trolling, body shaming amongst peers and colleagues, and even the recent #MeToo movement, has been rampant and has led to dangerous social and psychological consequences for the victim. There is a gaping lacuna in dealing with this in the societal narrative discourse – one that needs to be spoken about and action taken.  In the wake of this, Noblemen is most aptly timed to address a thorny issue, which very few films have engaged in over the years.

Noblemen, starring Kunal Kapoor, Ali Haji, Mohammad Ali Mir, Muskaan Jaferi and Shaan Grover releases on June 28