By Pankaj Sachdeva

In Noblemen, debutante director Vandana Kataria reimagines Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice by setting it in a boarding school in India. Her film tells the story of Shay (Ali Haji) who is selected to play the part of Bassanio from the aforementioned play in the annual function at his school. He is bullied by his senior Baaadal (Shaan Grover) as he wants to play the part of Bassanio as well. In connivance with the school captain Arjun (Mohommad Ali Mir), Baaadal tries to force Shay to withdraw from the play using violence and torture. The only support system Shay has in school is his friends Gonzo (Hardik Thakkar) and Pia (Muskkaan Jaferi) and his kind teacher Murali (Kunal Kapoor).
The Merchant of Venice is an important part of Noblemen, therefore, it is worthwhile to revisit its story. The play is the story of Antonio, a merchant, who owns ships in Venice. His friend Bassanio asks him for a loan to travel to Belmont to woo a girl named Portia. Antonio agrees but is unable to grant the loan himself as his money is invested in ships that were at sea. However, Antonio asks Bassanio to secure the loan from other moneylenders and promises to make a bond on his behalf. Thus, Bassanio approaches Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for the loan. Shylock nurses a grudge against Antonio for his antisemitic behavior in the past. Even then, he agrees to lend money to Bassanio but adds a condition that if the loan goes unpaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s own flesh.
After some events, it was revealed Antonio’s ships were lost at sea, and he won’t be able to repay Bassanio’s loan for which he had signed a bond. Shylock, thus, insists on fulfilling his condition that he be given the pound of Antonio’s flesh and gets him arrested. The lawyer in the court (who is Portia in disguise) pleads to Shylock to have mercy on Antonio. Bassanio also offers his wife’s money to Shylock which would more than pay the debt, but he refuses to accept it. Using some clever statements, the lawyer eventually stops Antonio’s death by arguing that Shylock asked for flesh but not for his blood. Shylock gets trapped in his own logic. In a reversal of events, the court then asks Shylock to forfeit his goods to Antonio and Bassanio as he threatened the life of a Venetian by his condition. Antonio refuses to take Shylock’s goods but requests that it be put in a trust for Shylock’s daughter who eloped with a Christian. Antonio also demands that Shylock becomes a Christian. Left with no options, Shylock agrees and leaves the court.
Coming back to Noblemen, early in the film, Murali explains to his students that the premise of The Merchant of Venice is revenge. The play is primarily about Shylock who wants to avenge himself against those who have wronged him. “Theater imitates life,” he adds. And, then, life imitates theater in the film where Shay (Shylock) goes onto avenge himself against Arjun (Antonio) and Baaadal (Bassanio). The film takes quotes from the play and adapts them to the situation in school. In the original play, Shylock confronts Christians by talking about the discrimination he faced by them as he is a Jew. He had said,

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
Doesn’t a Jew have eyes? Doesn’t a Jew have hands, bodily organs, a human shape, five senses, feelings, and passions? Doesn’t a Jew eat the same food, get hurt with the same weapons, get sick with the same diseases, get healed by the same medicine, and warm up in summer and cool off in winter just like a Christian?

Noblemen uses these same lines by changing the ethnic identities of Christian and Jew to the context of homosexuality. Shay is gay and is bullied by Arjun’s gang for not following the traditional rules of masculinity. The film uses the above passage to bring out the discrimination and the violent assault faced by Shay. Do not gay people have the same hands, the same organs, the same senses?

Later, Shay asks his mother how to come out of a situation when someone is being attacked from both sides. Shay’s mother Shruti (Soni Razdan) is a former airforce officer suffering from paralysis. The film never explicitly mentions this but Shay has frequent Skype conversations with her and her display picture conveys these details. His mother told him that the strategy that one should follow in the circumstances that Shay mentioned is focus and distract so that the attackers get tangled up with each other that they forget about the attack. Shay follows her mother’s advice and uses the same strategy to avenge him. He carefully distracts his enemies near the pool. After the call with his mother, Shay again refers to a passage from the play convincing himself that to do a great right, it is alright to do a little wrong. Alas, he goes on to something hugely wrong. The original play ended with Shylock going out of the court unable to avenge himself; however, in Noblemen, Shylock is able to exact his revenge. The film adds many other passages from the play and uses them in situations suited for its story.

And I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will. 
I beg you, just this once, 
Use your authority to bend the law. 
Do a great right by doing a little wrong. 
Don’t let this devil have his way.
As revenge is the central theme of the film, it is, therefore, not surprising that the hostel where the students is named after Gandhi who is believed to have said an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. On being asked about how will they take their revenge if someone hurt them, the students gave different options. Pia, in fact, mentioned that she will hurt them, like an eye for an eye. Shay mentions that he will do nothing as he believed those who hurt you will eventually end up hurting themselves so he will tire them out. Murali replied that for him forgiveness is the sweetest revenge. The same theme comes out in the characters’ decisions later in the film.

Early on, Shay finds a finch and names it Phoenix. The finch has the same color as his school uniform, he says. The finch is later killed by Arjun and his gang members. In the sense, Shay is the finch where his innocence is killed; and then, like a phoenix, he rises up to become a monster. This also harks back to the film’s opening credits that begin with the quote—”A monster when left unchecked, creates an even bigger monster.” We also see something similar in the opening and ending of the film. Noblemen begins with a bunch of boys chasing Shay in a pool almost trying to make him drown. The film ends with the same scene but something changes this time. Now Shay seems to be the perpetrator where he seems to be drowning his teacher. Interestingly, the film’s poster also shows this but it kind of inverts the climax of the film.

At one point, Pia, Gonzo, and Shay are chatting about how the three of them are misfits in the school in different ways leading them to be bullied by the others. Pia is a girl in a boys’ school, Ganesh is fat, and Shay is more interested in drama and literature but sucks at sports and is also gay. In a few scenes in the film, Shay and Pia seem to be close to each other and it seemed that they had feelings for each other. The film never touches this aspect of their relationship again as it is revealed that Shay is gay when he gets an erection after seeing Murali taking off his clothes in front of the class. The school principal and Murali discuss homosexuality in students where they fear that coming out is difficult for gay students as the world treats them harshly. Arjun and his gang represent the extreme end of masculinity where to go to the extent of assaulting Shay and Gonzo. The headteacher of the Gandhi house also supports harsh treatment meted out to students because it will make them men. If anyone has been a misfit of any kind in their growing up years, they would relate with them. We have all seen how vile can some students can be to someone who is different from them.

I would add that the one film that kept coming to me while watching Noblemen was Sonam Nair’s charming Gippi. There was Booboo in the film who was a bit of both Ganesh and Shay. Booboo was fat and had no interest in sports but knew the latest trends in makeup. He gets delighted when he speaks with boys, showing subtle hints of homosexuality. Booboo was ridiculed by everyone including his own elder sister. Characters, such as Sudo in Student of The Year or Mehul from Hip Hip Hurray, were mocked for being fat. But, being fat and gay adds another dimension to life. In a country that is still largely conservative, it is a tough life ahead for characters, such as Shay and Booboo. Perhaps, that is why one empathizes and feels more for such characters.

Overall, I really liked Noblemen. The film shows that there is always an opportunity to adapt and reimagine classic literature in contemporary times with contemporary themes to create something unique and different. Vandana Kataria has also focused on the little details to truly make an interesting film. I will be waiting to see what she comes up with next.

1. Ali Haji, who plays Shay, was the child actor in films, such as FanaaPartner, and Tara Rum Pum.
2. Muskkaan Jaferi, who plays Pia, is the daughter of Jagdeep and the stepsister of Javed Jaffrey.
3. Chahe Koi Mujhe Junglee Kahe and Ai Ai Ya Suku Suku from Junglee are mentioned in the film.
4. Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Jaye from Pyaasa is recreated in the film.
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