Shala (School) begins with a quote by Jim Morrison: “I am free.” In my mind, a film could not go wrong from there.
Shala, a Marathi film directed by debutant Sujay Dahake, and adapted from the novel by Milind Bokil, is a film that will take you back to your school days, making you relive your moments of friendship, love: lost and won, freedom and growing up.
The story takes place within the backdrop of the Emergency in a rural Maharashtrian town. Mukund Joshi (Anshuman Joshi) and Surya Mhatre (Ketan Pawar) are best friends in the 9th standard. Teachers stress on studying well as they would soon be appearing for their Board Exams. But as in wont with children of that age, Mukund and Surya have other plans. Surya likes Kevada (Mukta Vaidya) who never returns his affection, while Mukund falls for Shirodkar (Ketaki Mategaonkar) who too likes him.
What happens next is ably summed up by the John Lennon quote that Mukund’s maternal uncle Narumama (Jitendra Joshi) imparts to him: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
Such poignant stories like in Shala are a rarity in Indian cinema. The storytelling is crisp, the direction assured, although it is Dahake’s debut. The film is not all-sweet. There is a serious undertone throughout, with the Emergency and a suicide being thrown in the picture too. But the story never diverts from the crux that is Mukund’s life and his growing-up. It reminds you of To Kill A Mockingbird which took a serious issue like racism and told it from a child’s point of view.
All the child actors are perfect in their roles. Each stereotype is present here. The science geek, the bully friend, the gossip mongers, the lovebirds, the class-traitor, but the magic lies in how Dahake and his writer Avinash Deshpande takes these outlines of seemingly familiar characters and make us want to go to school with them. He would not have succeeded if the child actors weren’t so good. They were also helped by the senior actors especially Nandu Madhav who plays Mukund’s father and Santosh Juvekar who plays the History professor.
The camera is a silent spectator, helping us grab each nuance of childish mischief and innocent longing among the ‘actors’. At the same time, I had a little problem with the clarity during the establishing shots of the town; which could have been due to the screen I watched the film at. Otherwise, Diego Romero’s cinematography was some of the best seen in recent times. The score by Alokananda Dasgupta deserves a worthy mention here for its subtle, sublime effect. And yes, do not miss the opening credits: a fully animated section based on the Belgian ligne-claire method of animation.
When Shala ended, what I felt was something that I could compare only to what I felt after watching Udaan. Quite a coincidence because Udaan too featured a Jim Morrison lyric from The Doors song Break On Through: “You know the day destroys the night, the night divides the day. Try to run, try to hide; break on through to the other side.” And I couldn’t help thinking how Mukund too, at the end of the film, has to now cross over to the other side, the side of adulthood, sometimes harsh and, yet, inevitable.
Written by Runcil Rebello.