By Subhash K. Jha
Film: "Paathshaala"; Cast: Shahid Kapoor, Ayesha Takia Azmi, Nana Patekar, Anjan Shrivastava, Saurabh Shukla; Director: Milin Ukey; Producer: Ahmed Khan, Shaira Khan; Rating: ***
If a piece of cinema ever had its heart in its place, this is it. Don't let the sluggish pace, the absence of stylish shots and flamboyant frames fool you into believing that this is a film with no style.
The style behind "Paathshaala" is in its inner conviction.
The obvious artlessness of presentation with the students and teachers of an imaginary school behaving with a bluntness that replicates the dialect of television talk shows rather than the realism of cinema, must not come in the way of our wholeheartedly acceptance of the film for what it is. An unconditionally sincere effort to understand why the country's educational system pressurises children into performance anxiety.
While Basha Lal's cinematography is free of poetic flourishes, the "Ae Khuda" track just sweeps you off your feet. That is not the effect this grounded and sensible film and its unhurried pace strive to achieve otherwise.
The storytelling is suffused with sensitive pockets. To cite some examples - in one sequence the veteran sports teacher (played ably by Sushant Singh) gets together students to climb on one another to make a human pyramid for the sake of media coverage. The callousness of the freelance journalist as he talks into the cellphone while the students sweat it out in the sun, smothers your cynicism about such manipulative drama in the narrative.
Elsewhere, a little boy (Dwij Yadav) is made to stand in the sun for not paying the school fees. And then that decisive moment where a crass ad-maker reduces a little kid (Ali Haji) to tears, just chokes you.
The music reality show agent, who auditions the school kids as though they are fish to be fried straight from the market, is almost caricatural in his grotesque commercialism.
Then you realise that real life has sold out to a kind of vulgar self-gratification that makes it look more like a soap opera than the soaps that we see on television.
There is an inherent wisdom in the homilies that "Paathshaala" serves up so sincerely. The narration is so laidback and detoxicated you often wonder if the director believes that the inherent harmony of real life can only be captured in leisurely grace.
Comparisons to Aamir Khan's "Taare Zameen Par" are inevitable. Though flawed and at times failed, the overview of the educational system in "Paathshaala" is macro-cosmic in its own right.
The plot meanders into various issues that plague the educational institutions before negotiating itself into a clumsily 'epic' climax where the whole country's media becomes interested in the politics of the school where the plot unfolds.
The unevenness of pace notwithstanding, there is no mistaking the film's earnestness of purpose. Every actor, young and old, pitches an honest and transparent performance.
The stand-out (or considering the low-key pitch, should we say stand-in?) actors are Saurabh Shukla and Anjan Shrivastava. As for the children, let's not discriminate among them. They are all utterly charming.
The film's comment on the corrosion and corruption of education makes space for little-little flirty romantic liaisons among the older students. Cute!
As for Shahid Kapoor, the guy says his Hindi lines as though he just thought of them and expresses his connectivity with the kids with a warmth and effortlessness that makes the other superstar teachers on celluloid look rather put-on in comparison.