Director: Jayant Gilatar
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Juhi Chawla, Divya Dutta
Classroom drama is a not an unexplored genre in Bollywood but Jayant Gilatar’s nearly three-hour long “tribute” (as the credits call it) doesn’t intend to be a me-too. Story wise, this is not Dead Poets Society or Taare Zameen Par territory --- hardly any action unfolds in the classroom, except perhaps a ditty on the formidable Algebra principle BODMAS and then some on Trigonometry. This story is about what goes on in the power corridors that run the ‘business’ of education. It addresses the often overlooked and taken-for-granted plight of overworked and underpaid teachers, their complete lack of job security and how they are frequently reduced to mere cogs in the money-minting machine.
Question is, must a film about teachers be so didactic?
Chalk n Duster’s intentions are noble, just like the profession of its protagonists --- the two teachers Vidya and Jyoti played by Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla. They are highly revered at the Kantaben School where they have left a legacy spanning nearly two decades. But that’s not something their principal Miss Gupta (Divya Dutta) seems to care about. Why? Because she is out to banish all senior teachers from her school in order to infuse young blood with an aim to make the school an upmarket one. She plays her cards carefully while adjusting an over-sized wig as she sashays down the school corridors in high heels, conducting unannounced inspections. She is as evil as her targets are pure. And in that lies a major undoing of the story --- the complete lack of grey shades. It’s almost like the director, to hammer in the message, creates a simplistic and a highly melodramatic world of the good and the bad and we already know the moral of the story long before it is spelt out in bold.
The film does have a few insightful moments. Don’t we all still remember the little formulas our teachers would come up with to help us remember the order of the planets or a Pythagoras theorem? It also makes an interesting point, in Juhi Chawla’s monologue, about how the most respectable profession in the country rarely gets any true respect. “Have you ever heard of a teacher being invited to cut a ribbon?” Juhi’s Jyoti says at one point in the film. There are also some tearjerkers when ex-students, especially the highly successful ones, remember how their teachers impacted their lives and learning. It’s sad that even in their poignancy, these moments appear staged and stretched. That could be because of the choppy production values, poor editing and unimpressive dialogues. It’s remarkable the way Shabana Azmi shines through it all --- she has the rare gift of lending gravitas to the otherwise yawn-inducing lines about Sita’s virtues of pavitrata. When this teacher says them, you pay attention. Her tense altercations with Divya and a few very compassionate scenes with onscreen husband Girish Karnad form some of the best moments in the film.
Juhi Chawla, on the other hand, has a powerful character to work with but somehow fails to impact the way Shabana does. There is the bubbliness, and there is the sensitivity but she doesn’t induce empathy. Zarina Wahab is as elegant as they come and makes her very short screen time relevant. Samir Soni is mostly hammy as Juhi’s loving husband, while Arya Babbar with his glares and curled moustache makes us guffaw every time he tries to act sinister. A very vivacious Rishi Kapoor amuses in the cameo of a quiz master whose decibels could well match those of prime time news anchors. Credit to the behind-the-scenes quizmaster for keeping us hooked with some awe-inducing eye openers towards the end of the film. There is some precious trivia coming your way in this otherwise convoluted climax sequence of the film.
It’s a shame that despite the presence of some of the best actors in the industry, Chalk n Duster has a very primetime, low-budget soap opera like feel to it. Melodrama can be made palatable with technique and on that front this film has “first timer” written all over it. It scores rather poorly in its screenplay, editing, cinematography and sound design --- the background score especially is unbearably intrusive.
A little more finesse could have helped Chalk n Duster emerge a topper in the genre. With a subject like this, telling the story well was as important as telling it at all. Unfortunately, for now it better hide its report card.