Every other Hindi movie these days either eulogizes TV news or vilifies it. Breaking news is part of the climax, it propels the plot forward and it’s often as important as the film’s characters. Paa, Well Done Abba, and now Milind Ukey’s Paathshaala are just three examples. In any film that deals with experiences where society and politics impinge on the human and personal—and that’s true of many movies made in the new India—a writer or director can’t avoid breaking news. It’s a stinging testimony to the ubiquitousness of TV news and how integral it is to our lives.
Book basics: Shahid Kapoor plays a teacher and Ayesha Takia a nutritionist in Milind Ukey’s Paathshaala play teachers in a school where every incident becomes a battle between good and evil.
The largely young call centre audience I watched the film with at an 8am first-day show chuckled at as well as applauded the histrionics of the TV reporters in Paathshaala.
In Ukey’s film, TV is the villain as well as hero. Reality TV is a predator, killing the spirit of students at the boarding school where it is set. TV news tries to save it from the predator. A new management, driven only by profit and bent on competing with the expensive private schools of the city, is about to change the way things work around the school. One of the ways they want to do this is by making the school’s infrastructure and facilities attractive to parents. They believe that parents will enrol their children for a higher tuition fee if the school’s pre-adolescent students appear in talent hunts on TV.
There is absolutely nothing that is subtle in this campus film. Honest principal against greedy, monstrous trustee; rich against poor; cold drinks against natural food; reality shows against reality. Every conflict is loud, and black and white.
But the messages, conveyed explicitly through some tediously dramatic dialogues, are relevant and mirror some unpalatable truths: the state of teachers in our country, how poorly rewarded they are; the importance of a friendly, tyranny-free environment for a child’s development; that modern infrastructure doesn’t necessarily mean progressive thought.
The story begins when Rahul Prakash Udyavar (Shahid Kapoor) joins the school in an eastern Mumbai suburb as a teacher of English. Every teacher, including a scatterbrained Bengali teacher of geography and a blustering Parsi teacher of science, is a caricature (why do we have only a Bengali, a Sikh, a Parsi or a Gujarati representative in all our movies?).
The nutritionist Anjali Mathur (Ayesha Takia) is gregarious and caring, enthusiastically going about her job. She has banned aerated drinks in the school canteen and wants to introduce a good music class for younger students. The principal, Aditya Sahay (Nana Patekar), is a terror—the kind of principal whose life revolves around his school, but who is such an extreme disciplinarian that students fear the sight of him (it helps that Patekar has a frown and a raspy voice).
All is hunky-dory in this “old world” school (except for a boy who is taunted because of how he looks) until the management decides to transform it. Can principal Sahay and his staff stand up to the management and retain the institute’s innocence and joy?
For Ukey and his writers, the ideal school is remarkably sterile and in parts too old world to digest—for example, there’s not a single girl in sports class. The girls paint while the boys play basketball. But that isn’t only why Paathshaala, in the 2 hours of its running time, tests your patience. Every turn of the story, every incident is turned into a battle between good and evil. Eventually,?it’s too preachy to engage you or move you. The makers seem to sign off by saying, “So the moral of the story is...”
Kapoor’s role has a charming intensity about it—he is unwittingly the hero, who can turn things around—but it’s nowhere close to his best roles. There isn’t much room for the loud, angry histrionics that Patekar is known for; here, he is a quiet angry man. Among the performances, he seems to fit into the role best. Takia and almost all the other actors are competent.
Paathshaala is the kind of film that will appeal to my grandmother. When you have children living in a boarding school, who are shouted at and who are puppets of the evil management, who are so tired by auditioning for reality shows that they sleep without having dinner, it’s a tear-jerker for the elderly. Schmaltzy music plays in the background while all this injustice is unleashed on the children. In thought, Paathshaala is reformist, in execution it’s preachy— like a bad soap opera.
Paathshaala released in theatres on Friday.