Noblemen, by all appearances, should be a pleasant film. It’s set entirely in an old colonial boarding school, in some unnamed but picturesque hill station. There are lush trees, great shots of nearby mountains and mist, and everything that one associates with a campus film, youths, budding love and rivalry. But Noblemen does not aim to be that sort of a film. If anything, it is an anti-campus, anti-Karan Johar type of boarding school film.
It depicts just how cruel adolescence can be. How this particular age, with it all its attendant issues of confusion, sexuality, honour codes, can become a claustrophobic world that can crush the youngest and most innocent soul. Often, the lead character in the film, a sensitive young boy Shay (played by Ali Haji) will look up at an adult and tell them, “But you don’t know what it is to be me.” And it is true. This adult would have once experienced adolescence, perhaps even gone through or known someone close who went through what some of the lead experiences. But once a person matures into adulthood, once he escapes the claustrophobic confines of that world, he will immediately stop truly knowing what it means to be an adolescent trapped in that world.
Vandana Kataria, well known as a production designer in films such as Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Shanghai among others, makes a very assured debut as director in this Yoodlee Films movie (Yoodlee Films, a film division of Saregama, is part of the RP-Sanjiv Goenka Group, which publishes Open). Kataria takes a very unfamiliar and mostly young cast of actors (the most popular face being Kunal Kapoor, who plays a teacher) to make a nuanced film on adolescence.
The film is set in an upper-class all-boys’ boarding school called Mount Noble High. There are also a few girls here but these are the children of the school staff. The school’s Founder’s Day is approaching, and a play, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, is being organised. The lead, Shay, has been cast as Bassanio. But another, presumably slightly older boy, Baadal (played by Shaan Grover), along with a gang of bullies, headed by the school prefect, Arjun (Mohommad Ali Mir), wants Shay to quit the play so Baadal can play Bassanio and woo the girl playing Portia (Pia, played by Muskaan Jaferi).
The film at its most essential level is interested in masculinity. Its lens is focused at the moment when boys are becoming men, at the threshold where the male psyche transforms and at what things boys are told to leave behind and what to be picked. Everyone in the school, from most teachers to the principle, is constantly telling its students that they must become noblemen (of course, this will be far from the truth). Students are reminding one another of honour codes. A teacher will look out from a window at a playground, where a young boy is being bullied mercilessly, and when told that he should intervene, the teacher will reply, “This will make him a man.”
The protagonist of the film, Shay, is in all probability gay. One of the delicious elements in this film is how it subverts your expectations. You may think it will be a coming-out-of-the-closet indie film, or a film, which to some level, is interested in a character that learns to accept his sexuality. But that’s not the case. Shay may be gay, and worried if others find out he is one. But there are many hints in the film that the tormentor Arjun, who comes across as a homophobic alpha-male character might himself also be gay.
There is also a very playful quality in the way in which the film’s story and the play being staged constantly refer to one another, both in plotlines and themes. If you are interested in teasing out such clues, you will notice the characters in the film, even when they are not in the theatre workshop, constantly mouthing lines from the play. The film itself is a mirror image of the play being staged. And the biggest giveaway is the names of the characters. Shay who wants to play The Merchant Of Venice’s Bassanio is actually the tragic figure Shylock. Pia is Portia. Baadal, who wants to woo Pia, is Bassanio. Arjun who wants to help Baadal, like how Antonio wants to help Bassanio in the play, is (you guessed right) Antonio.
Noblemen is a subtle film of ideas. About masculinity, about homosexuality and homophobia, and like in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, about the larger themes of persecution and revenge, and how these emotions can inhabit and change the inner worlds of its people. It is told through an engaging and often uncomfortable, but never preachy, plotline.
By the end of the film, no one emerges unscathed and noble.