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Noblemen

Rating: 2.5

June 28, 2019

Cast: Kunal Kapoor, Ali Haji, Shaan Grover, Mohammed Ali Mir, Hardik Thakkar, Muskaan Jaferi, Soni Razdan, MK Raina

Director: Vandana Kataria

When the gentle hero of the film Noblemen, Shay Sharma, names his injured bird Phoenix, you feel that there could be a deeper significance at play here. Perhaps the young Shay, constantly bullied by his seniors at his hill station boarding school, will be able to rise like a Phoenix.

But the film goes into brutal territory as debutante director Vandana Kataria uncovers the dark face of school bullying. And yes, while Noblemen does tackle sensitive themes like abuse, homophobia, fat-shaming, hero-worship, and drug addiction, it becomes a one-note, depressing story with not a sign of redemption. Despite competent performances you feel bogged down by the relentless despair that the protagonist is confronted with, until the film takes an altogether bizarre plot diversion.

The students of Mount Noble High are putting together a production of The Merchant of Venice for the school’s 50th Founder’s Day event. Shay (Ali Haji), a sensitive soul, has been selected for the lead role of Bassanio by drama teacher Murali (Kunal Kapoor). But this puts Shay in the line of fire from his seniors, namely Baadal (Shaan Grover), who wants to play Bassanio, and his friend, football champ and most feared bully Arjun (Mohammed Ali Mir). The two are determined to make Shay back out of the play, but Shay hangs onto the role because his ailing mother (Soni Razdan) has promised to come for Founder’s Day.

Kataria has perceptively picked up the rhythms of boarding school-life and the feeling of friends becoming family. Shay has two pals, Gunzu (Hardik Thakkar) and Pia (Muskaan Jaferi), who have his back. But there’s not much anyone can do when Arjun and Baadal start targeting Shay, hitting at his weaknesses, be it Gunzu or his beloved bird Phoenix.

The film explores complex emotions, as Shay – who’s nursing a crush on his teacher Murali – is mercilessly picked on by homophobes, even before he’s come to terms with his own sexuality. But the track between teacher and student is weak and overly complicated. Murali doesn’t know where to draw the line – surely it’s inappropriate for an adult to undress before minor students and ask them to take their clothes off, even if it is for an acting exercise on loosening inhibitions.

The bullying is tough to watch, especially when Gunzu is paraded naked or when Shay is brutally attacked. There’s also the constant sneering and jeering from Arjun and his sidekicks that makes the film a tad monotonous.

What deserves mention, however, are the performances, and the dose of reality. Kunal Kapoor makes the most of a slimly defined character, and the young actors all infuse their parts with sincerity. Mohammed Ali Mir as the detestable Arjun and Ali Haji as Shay stand out for their sheer commitment to their complex characters.

I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five for Noblemen. It makes you think hard about bullying, but saddled with a screenplay that doesn’t quite lift off, it is at best moderately engaging.

(This review first aired on CNN News18)

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