Shala(School), the film, is about the experience of falling in love for the very first time at a tender age. It is set in the 70s when every other school wasn’t ‘international’ and they worked perfectly fine without the students having i-pads or any such fancy gadgets. It is also a coming of age story of four adolescents who are best of friends but are unaware of what turn their life will take at the end of the academic year of their school. Mind you, it is not a ‘children’s film’ but a ‘film on children’ which explores their psychology and behavior.
The adolescent love angle has been dealt with a very delicate hand. The performances by the leads go a long way in conveying the tenderness of experiencing love at such a young age. It will definitely resonate with those who have been through such a phase in life.
But the most distinct part of the film is the immaculate description of school life. Shala which is based on a very popular marathi novel of the same name written by Milind Bokil, not only lives up to its tagline ‘revisit your school days’ but surpasses it. In the famous series of fantasy novels, Harry Potter and his associates get to a desired destination by using a portal. Shala is in a way such a portal which uses the magic of cinema to ‘cine’port you backward in time to the classroom you sat in your 9th standard. As a result, you end up ‘reliving’ and not only ‘revisiting’ your school days. Even though the film is set in the 70s emergency period, each and every soul who has had a time of his life sitting beside his best buddy on that wooden bench during high school would very easily relate to Shala. The portrayal of mischief like making funny gestures behind the teachers back when he/she is busy writing on the black board is so similar to what my mates did back then that I just couldn’t help myself from identifying the characters on screen with people I actually knew from that time. Astoundingly, our favourite ‘kaka’(peon) from then also shares the same name with the one in the film. Everybody, without an exception, will have something so much in common with the story unfolding on screen that you would be left stunned. Shala is an excellent example of art imitating life.
Now, it certainly is no mean task to make a film which is equivalent to holding up a mirror to life. Filmmaking is about getting the right people together to fulfill the director’s vision. The young and very talented director Sujay Dahake seems to have done exactly that and it is very visible right throughout his film. The casting is just perfect. Despite being first time actors, all the kids have done exceedingly well that too with the movie being shot in sync sound. Apart from the protagonists played by Anshuman Joshi and Ketaki Mategaonkar, the boy who plays the character of the bully of the class named Mhatre is particularly very impressive. The film also has other interesting roles all played effectively by established marathi actors like Dilip Prabhavalkar, Santosh Juvekar, Jitendra Joshi, Nandu Madhav, Ashwini Giri and Amruta Khanvilkar amongst others.
Spanish cameraman Diego Romero, who also was Sujay’s teacher at his film school, has done an excellent job in capturing the essence of living in a small town in India. In spite of the poor projection at the film’s screening at the 3rd Eye Asian Film Festival, the visuals were captivating. Avinash Deshpande, the script writer, has to be applauded specially for the conversations in the film. They are exactly like how 14 year old guys would chat amongst themselves with all the swear words and references to girls intact. Also the dialogues related to emergency are wise without being preachy or clichéd. Alokananda Dasgupta has composed a compelling background score which despite sounding western gels very well with the film. Famous singer Rekha Bharadwaj has also lent her voice to a track and the beautiful ‘aalaaps’ in the background score composed by Ms.Dasgupta. Folk-rock band Agnee have composed 2 songs which though haven’t been included in the film are expected to release soon.
Another feature of the film is the effort put in to maintain authenticity, a rarity in Indian cinema indeed. The movie has been specially shot on location at Panhala as the scenic hill station is protected by the Archeological Survey of India and thus its landscape hasn’t changed much from the 70s. Even the currency notes that are used only once in the film do feel like they are from the 70s which definitely speaks volumes of the attention to detail given by the production unit.
The opening titles of Shala have an uncanny similarity to the ones in the blockbuster of the period in which the movie is set in and obviously has a mention in the film viz. Sholay. Again it is very rare in Indian cinema to have used the opening titles with such ingenuity.
The brisk pace with which the plot unfolds helps in keeping your attention but also at places does minor injustice to some parts of the story which certainly deserve more time. Especially, the part where a fellow student commits suicide required more footage in the script as it isn’t a minor incident at all. Due to this some characters and their tracks do feel underdeveloped. As I haven’t read the book from which the film is adapted it would be unfair for me to say this, but it does feel like the scriptwriter wanted to have all the sub-plots from the book in the film and in the process had to sacrifice on the time consumed by each sub-plot. Those who have read the book can shed more light on this matter.
But Shala otherwise is an extremely lovable film. It will freshen up those wonderful memories from school. I reckon, watching Shala when it releases on the 20th of January with your school friends would without doubt make for an awesome reunion.
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(P.S.- Interview of the director Sujay Dahake can be read here)