Shlok Sharma is an audacious filmmaker, in choosing to focus on a taboo relationship in his first feature film — between a married teacher Shyam (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and his minor student Sandhya (Shweta Tripathi). Leave alone the Censor Board, it’s the kind of theme that can go against the moral grain of even the most liberal and radical of viewers. The disclaimer at the start, and inserted through the film, stating that sex with a minor is a punishable offence under Indian Penal Code, also pre-empts how the film can be misread and misinterpreted. It’s a tightrope walk for Sharma himself then — in how he goes about presenting a twisted, uneasy reality on screen; a portrayal that can, potentially, turn out anything, from sensitive to exploitative.
- Director: Shlok Sharma
- Starring: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Shweta Tripathi, Trimala Adhikari, Mohd Samad, Irfan Khan
- Run time: 90 mins
To give Sharma his due, he looks at the central relationship without any kerfuffle, with detachment and distance. He doesn’t validate it nor does he glamorise it. He doesn’t turn the viewers into voyeurs nor does he make them feel for the main players. What may go against him is that he doesn’t appear to be taking a stand or being obviously hard-hitting. What is the point of the film then, many might ask. However, it’s this straightforward, at times blunt, at others quirky, portrayal which made the situation more disquietingly real for me — how children can end up getting exploited surreptitiously without the protectors and caregivers managing to get a whiff of it. How in their naiveté, children may often perceive violence in relationships as something normal, how the deviant and aberrant might lurk behind the perfectly conventional.
Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance takes a mercurial turn as the creepy, manipulative teacher. He works with his body as much as the face, works out the movements and gestures — the way he squats while teaching the children; how he keeps the hands behind as he walks, left one atop right; the casual flirtation with a school colleague; the sudden bursts of violence against his students; the tryst with Sandhya in the isolated, dusty, windy landscape observed by the camera from a distance (in, perhaps, the best scene of the film) or when he decides to bring his relationship with her to end with the cold rebuke, “Beej ganit kamzor hai aapka (You are weak in algebra).”
The talented Trimala Adhikari, who I remember most for Manav Kaul’s play Mamtaz Bhai Patang Wale and his film Hansa, adds to the moral conundrum with her waif-like presence as the wife of Shyam. She had been his student too, hinting at a possibly persistent predatorial aspect of his personality.
The only winsome characters are the adolescent classmates of Sandhya — Kamal (Irfan Khan) who nurses a huge crush on her and his precocious friend Mintu (Mohammad Samad). Samad, particularly, is the show-stealer.
It’s Sandhya’s side of the story — her misplaced affection for Shyam — that doesn’t seem as well formed. Also, there’s something pat about taking it all back to her family — a mother who ran away and a father who isn’t quite there.
While Sharma sets the stage well, the narrative does get disjointed in places. Are the Censor Board’s pair of scissors to be blamed? The need for neat resolutions and an abrupt finale go against the otherwise distinctive rhythm of the film. The proxy mother that Sandhya finds in her father’s girlfriend is as convenient (and melodramatic) a device for closure as is the dark fate the director chooses for the two boys and the teacher. Life is a lot less tidy, and a lot more dirty.