The Return to Innocence
Film: Shaala (Marathi), Cast: Anshuman Joshi, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Nandu Madhav, Directed by: Sujay Dahake, Duration: 108 mins, Rating: * * * *
Winner of the National Award for best adapted screenplay (Avinash Deshpande) Shaala (School) also marks the highly impressive debut of director Sujay Dahake. Adapted from a book by Milind Bokil, this is one of the most charming films to hit the silver screen in a long long time, and three cheers to it.
The main reason why Shaala works is because it strikes such a strong chord with the audience. It is a nostalgia trip all the way and ‘Dahake and company’ have done a fine job of capturing the nuances of that age. It is a coming of age story of a few teenager friends and the love saga of the main protagonist that has been dealt with extreme efficiency. This is love in the time of emergency.
The film opens with part of a popular quote by Jim Morrison which actually goes - “Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.”
It is a period film set in 1975, although initially there are no references to the year, unless you spot the date written on the notice board of the school. Mukund (Anshuman Joshi) is a standard nine student who has a jolly good time with his friends in school. He is the cool headed, bright guy with an inquisitive mind, who also loves movies with a penchant for Hollywood films. “I will make you an offer you can’t refuse,” he says trying to impress his mom with an imaginary cigar in his hand, imitating you know who.
Along with his friends they do all the whacky things that just about everyone did in school or at least saw others doing it. That also includes admiring the good looking teachers and girls. The headmaster (Dilip Prabhavalkar of Munna bhai fame) is a no nonsense man, who stresses on the need for discipline among our countrymen.
Mukund falls in love with his classmate (Ketaki Mategaonkar) who seems to reciprocate his feelings. The way their love story unfolds (meeting in quiet by lanes, exchanging glances, pretending to exchange books while the purpose is something else all together) is handled with admirable deftness. “What about us?” he asks innocently, referring to the future of their relationship. She doesn’t look at him in the eye and pretends she didn’t understand his question. Sweet.
Between all that, the children also get to hear about the emergency in our country - the darkest period in India’s democracy. Their teacher (Santosh Juvekar) explains what it means to the kids who are blissfully unaware of the implications till then. Some young Turks in the neighbourhood inspired by Che are conspiring against the emergency.
The story also draws parallels of the political scenario vis-à-vis a teacher who beats the kids black and blue. Another important character who plays a pivotal role in Mukund’s life is his uncle (Jitendra Joshi), who quotes Lennon (‘Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans’) and James Bond (I tend to notice little things like that - whether a girl is a blonde or a brunette), after watching Diamonds are Forever.
The only grievance, if one could use that word, is the finale, which is doesn’t give the same high like the rest of the film.
There are plenty really funny scenes that will make you laugh-out-loud and some poignant ones as well - take the episode of the mug with Che Guevara on it; marvellous. Technically, the film is as accomplished as any good film you have seen. The cinematography by Spanish cameraman Diego Romero is from the top draw and Alokananda Dasgupta’s background score is evocative.
On the acting front, Nandu Madhav as the understanding father, and Jitendra Joshi as the uncle, fit the bill. Young actors Ketan Pawar as the friend, and the lead players, Anshuman Joshi and Ketaki Mategaonkar are spot on.
With films like Taryanche Bet, Baboo Band Bajaa, Bal Gandharva and Deool, Marathi cinema is lately on a roll. Shaala is another accomplishment and a terrific debut for Dahake, so don’t miss it. You rarely see the audience clap in delight after watching a film and that is as strong a testimony as it can get.