Bombay Showcase

The act of teaching

Pivotal roles:Actor Pankaj Tripathi (top) deftly plays quirky school principal Mr. Srivastava in Nil Battey Sannata, and Amole Gupte plays a khadoos Hindi teacher, Babubhai Verma, in Stanley Ka Dabba.  

You gaamda !” he would yelp — a deafening nasal explosion — before flinging the duster in the general direction of unsuspecting troublemakers. Mr. Das, or bewda (drunkard) as he was lovingly known, was our ninth grade mathematics professor. As an Oriya Brahmin oddity in Gujarat, his customised parlance lent an impression that the term translated to more than merely its literal meaning (“you villager!”). Dark skin, soporific eyes and a voice swaying between boredom and deadpan villainy, Das — like his uncanny ‘90s Telugu-baddie doppelganger Rami Reddy — lived to intimidate.

He almost resembled the sarcastic tormentor of a math master from Avinash Arun’s Killa . Though this gleeful Konkani figure appears fleetingly, his sole purpose of existence here is to establish trust — in a single scene — between new-admission ‘scholar’ Chinmay (Archit Deodhar) and the bratty local gang. But one can sense him becoming a seminal portion of their childhoods; one can imagine their adult avatars repeatedly revisiting this life-altering moment.

He looks like less of an outlaw than Amole Gupte’s khadoos Hindi teacher Babubhai Verma from Stanley Ka Dabba , an authoritarian representing antagonistic gluttony instead of tutelage. Stanley (Partho Gupte) and his mates will probably remember him far more than their robotic Science teacher, Mrs. Iyer (Divya Jagdale). Perhaps because he is lustful (for food) and flawed like them, and less predictable than Iyer, who is the nightmarish embodiment of every student’s worst fear: the stiff-lipped, step-motherly disciplinarian. She walks, talks, conducts roll calls and dictations, and scowls like she was born to inhabit a joyless universe. She is the bad cop to Divya Dutta’s saccharinely sweet good cop, Miss Rosy. Add to these halls a mandatory senile old bat and an unorthodox student-favourite, and the circuit of knowledge is complete.

Most primary schools deliberately hire this motley combination of characters. Not unlike superhero ensembles, they feel obliged to psychologically balance out impressionable young minds by seesawing between such vivid personas. To compensate for parents’ unconditional biases, they cultivate anti-homey auras about themselves, and operate like shape-shifting, mythical beings. You don’t speak to them; you bow, you listen, you respond, you leave.

I was most jittery about once sharing a rickshaw with the 10th grade math legend, Mr. Shah. The steady drone of traffic was drowned out by my paranoid musings: Does he have a home? Doesn’t he ride in on a chariot? Does sunlight affect him? He breathes?

It never dawned upon me that Shah had a first name (“sir” was his last name), or that he had a beating heart behind those faded check shirts, an accident behind that missing tooth, or that he had a wife and kids (imagine living with a “school”), or if he ever — heaven forbid — knew how to smile. If he did, we’d treat it as a celestial event and chuckle deliriously at outdated puns.

All of them are filling out pivotal roles, both literally and figuratively. They’re pedagogues, but they’re also actors who wear other faces the second they step out of their doors. In Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s recent Nil Battey Sannata — an underdog tale about an Agra-based housemaid Chanda (Swara Bhaskar) joining the same school as her academically-challenged daughter Apeksha (Ria Shukla) — actor Pankaj Tripathi deftly plays the part of this performer: quirky school principal, Mr. Srivastava.

As the all-important “board-exam-year” professor, he knows that his lessons are directly responsible for their future. Therefore, he becomes their star — a hero one day, a villain or supporting actor the next — and educates through, and often craves, this limelight. His annual ghoda ya khachchar speech seems like a result of subtle tweaks and rehearsals over several years. He behaves as if their eyes, like film cameras, are perennially on him. He walks with that tilted eccentric-jog gait, gesticulates as if he were auditioning for a Gulzar poem, and lurks around morning assemblies like an excitable watchdog.

He is likely a very different entity back at home, as I would imagine Shah and Das were. He presumably feels, eats and burps like mere mortals, a double-life he never allows his students to recognise. Math becomes his stage; hundreds of bright-eyed ‘horses’, his audience; and their laughter, his applause. Chanda will remember him, as will Apeksha, entire batches will — they will forever own little parts of him — but they will never quite know the whole, the real man behind the mask.

When I opened a newspaper some years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Shah’s wrinkled face smiling (yes) back at me. Five nostalgic seconds passed before I noticed the ‘Obituary Classified’ byline.

He had fallen off the train he was hurriedly trying to board. The wizard was no more. How inappropriate, then, that in his death he felt more human than ever; that the end of a life signified the existence of one. He breathes. And he bleeds.

The writer is a freelance film critic, writer and habitual solo traveller

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 2:07:10 AM |

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