The year was 1994. I was in class 9th. It’s the year when the world starts reminding you that life and death will be based on your next year’s results. So, this is the year before you are crucified for the board exams. Have as much fun as you can have.
My class found its first official couple that year – those who declared their love without saying anything. Boy from middle-class. Girl from Officers’ colony. In a small coal town in Jharkhand (it was Bihar then) where dating wasn’t part of our dictionary, it was a big thing. Quite daring too. Because unlike in big cities, we all knew how many chappatis our neighbours had for lunch and how many they finished in dinner. Everyone knew everyone else and every affair related to them. Love in a small town was a risky business.
So for the rest of us, it was a teasing game – oh, she is with him and he is with her. The peer pressure that makes you imagine weird things. It was all just in the head. But for the couple, i was the middle man. The boy used to sit on my right as we shared the desk. The girl, on my left, had a separate desk. And between the boring classes, writing and passing love chits was their favourite activity. Being a good friend, i had no choice but to spice up the chits when asked by my friend. And help her in studies too. She is your friend’s girlfriend. If not you, for the first time someone in your life has a girlfriend. You have no other choice.
The first chit, the first letter, the first chocholate that was shared – it was all before my eyes. And like all small town love stories, this also ended with a Jagjit Singh ghazal. He came back from Benaras and told me that he did exactly what Jagjit Singh sang in Arth – Tere khusboo me base khat mein jalata kaise….Pyaar me doobe huye khat mein jalata kaise…Tere haathon ke likhe khat mein jalata kaise…Teri khat aaj mein ganga me baha aaya hun….Aag behete huye paani me laga aaya hun.
We never discussed this later on. But sometimes i still do think about the entire episode and a big smile appears on my face. For two hours i had the same smile on my face as i watched Sujay Dahake’s directorial debut Shala.
Based on Milind Bokil’s novel by the same name, this is an assured debut. And believe it or not, the filmmaker is just 25 year old.
The film doesn’t state anything new. It’s a trip down memory lane that you have seen many times before. Just the set-up is different and the faces are new. But everything is captured so well – it’s all about the silences, glances, moments and the memories. School, best friends, love, heartbreaks, first rush of hormones, crush on your favourite teacher and that first introduction to politics which tells you that the real world is not what it looked like so far – say it, and it’s all there.
Best thing about Shala is that it doesn’t look like a film at all. The acting is so natural, the camera is so non-intrusive and lingers on frames with so much ease that it feels as if someone just put a camera in a school. There is not a single false note in the family affairs too where the scenes are quite delightful.
The story is set in the backdrop of the emergency. Though it doesn’t add much political colour to the main story and which seems like a tokenism, but Sujay belongs to “subtle school of filmmaking”.
A common factor in any good film is that you will always remember a character who is there in just 2-3 scenes. Mr Joshi (lead character’s father) played by Nandu Madhav is that character in Shala. Watch him in the scene when he receives the letter from the school – knowing some of my friends and their strange equation with their dads, can bet that many people will wish that they had a father like him.
The lead actors played by Anshuman Joshi and Ketaki Mategaonkar have such a terrific and delicate chemistry between them that it’s impossible to believe that it’s just onscreen love. They do nothing heroic about their love story but those tender moments filled with soulful music are so powerful that they will stay with you long after you have left the theater.
Another place where it scores a high point is that the film doesn’t aim for the big bang climax. It’s all about the journey, it’s not a “destination movie”. Because the pain of growing up can’t have a happy ending. Nothing prepares you for the cynicism. The joy is in the journey. Shala celebrates that. This is what pure and uncompromising cinema looks like. And since that’s a rare genre in this country, i suggest you don’t miss this one.
Watch it. Watch it because nostalgia is a bitch, and when the bitch is so beautiful, there is no way out.
And what’s your class 9th story? Do tell us.
The film is playing at Mumbai’s 24 Karat Theater (Jogeshwari) with Subtitles. They have only one show at 3:30pm. If you know about any other show with subtitles, do let us know.
Click here to check out the official website of the film.