Cult is a much abused term in today’s common parlance, casually applied to things that don’t really make the cut. As for movies and TV, it is something that it isn’t exactly an instant mainstream success, but eventually develops a crazed fandom and loyal following that expands over time. How can one pre-ordain a cult? By definition, it cannot be planned. But director Ananth Mahadevan seems to know the formula to make one. One of the taglines for his latest film Rough Book is that it’s the year’s most cult film. Apparently, it was shown to the students at Kota – the epitome of everything that is wrong with the education of our country – and was very well received. Obviously, the makers -- prompted by an overenthusiastic marketing team -- made the mistake of misusing the word, cult. But it also exposes a crucial failure on part of the film; a desperation to woo the youth while actually being far removed from their pulse.
A large part of Rough Book ’s cast comprises young, new actors who feature as a group of students. The film’s portrayal of today’s youth is laughable. For instance, the main character is called Google Baba because he believes a smartphone is smarter than a human. For all their desperate attempts at making them look ‘cool’ – listening to Queen on YouTube for example – they come across as singularly uncool people I would never want to hang out with. Forget nuances, the broad character developments are unconvincing too.
But the film doesn’t begin in such a hopeless fashion. We see quiet shots of green hills from inside a window-seat in a bus through Santoshi’s (Tannishtha Chatterjee) eyes. She is an idealistic physics teacher, whose life unfolds in two converging tracks. But this two-track introduction of the character gets over in the first 15 minutes. She suffers a personal crisis that lands a blow to her ideology, but she withstands it and carries on. Chatterjee’s Hindi (that always has had a tinge of a Bengali accent) is compensated by her easy, assuring presence.
While I didn’t go into the movie expecting great things, I’d been glad with the way it was going: an engaging story with a decent female actor paving way for a film with a message about the need for educational reforms in the country. Unfortunately, it turns out, that all of it was just a back-story; a prelude to an awfully sermonising and banal film. Santoshi takes up a job in another school where she is given charge of the above mentioned class of students. It follows all the clichés of a standard teacher-student drama. The inspiring teacher is unwelcome initially. But when she shows unconventional and interesting ways of teaching, the students warm up to her. Then they soon become her pet, following which the school authority gets pissed and expels her, but they defy all odds... Oops. Did I just give away too many spoilers?
Bizarre things begin amidst all this. For example, when a student breaks the glass window of Santoshi’s car while playing cricket in school, instead of getting it repaired, she gets newspaper pages with strategically placed inspirational quotes about life and knowledge covering it. And it’s a new one everyday. So that kids in the school see it and learn. The attempt to show subtle attraction between Santoshi and Google Baba is also not quite subtle and pretty awkward in moments. Principal, rival teachers are shown as wily, one-note businessmen while characters such as Santoshi and her group of social worker-teachers friends are unbearably pious. I also couldn’t help chuckle at the unintentionally comedy when Santoshi meets Maa, a sort of a universal mother figure who perpetually wears a white sari and lives a Spartan lifestyle.
Rough Book maybe a well-intentioned film that tries to talk about education’s descent into business in the country. But it is impossible to take it seriously.