The film begins with a simple enough quote from rock icon Jim Morrison: “You are free”. This is followed by a commonplace scene, a school assembly where bored children are being ordered to “fall in line” and are getting educated by the conformist school principal on a “revolution” called the Emergency, which has been imposed on the country. He claims it will discipline us and help the nation progress like Germany and Japan. This sets the tone for Shala (School), the much-acclaimed new Marathi film, set in the 1970s, that subtly upholds liberalism, tolerance and freethinking against regimentation and control and rings profoundly true in current times, when the freedom of expression—whether it be of a Salman Rushdie, a Jay Leno or a David Fincher—has been up for some sustained discussion.
Shala’s 25-year-old debutant director Sujay S. Dahake, a graduate in mass communication and postgraduate in semiotics and filmmaking, is glad his audience is catching the “small nuances” embedded in his film that, on the surface, may seem nothing more than a straightforward, coming-of-age tale. He claims the film, based on a novel of the same name by Milind Bokil, is in fact his revenge upon a system that refused to take someone young like him seriously as a filmmaker when he went about looking for finance. “No one wanted to trust me and I had to make statistical, corporate presentations to tell them how it would bring in the money,” he says.
Those promised numbers are now getting delivered by Shala. The film has been running to packed houses in the state for a week, that too when not a single billboard was put up to announce its entry in theatres. “Billboards are visual pollution and an ego trip for the producers. The momentum was built on word-of-mouth and through social media platforms,” says Dahake. The total budget, including publicity and promotions, was Rs 2.5 crore, roughly what an average Bollywood film would spends on an item number. Having already broken even, its TV rights grabbed by the Star Network, the film has now been subtitled and is awaiting release in the rest of the country.
Success apart, Shala is a deceptively simple film. It’s a slice of school life that focuses on 14-year-old Mukund Joshi and his three friends, Surya, Chitrya and Favdya. In fact, it could be a slice of anybody’s school life. “I could see myself in it: the moments were natural, the emotions real,” says well-known filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar. To get the rooted feel, Dahake spent eight months and conducted 1,600 auditions all over Maharashtra to get the right kids to play the significant roles, all of them facing the camera for the first time.
Shala is about homework and exams, drills and punishments, crushes on teachers, meeting friends at secret haunts, spouting lines from Sholay. Also about that sweet girl you stare at furtively but whose hand you never hold. However, all these relationships are just in the now, and not the future. Eventually, everyone moves on, quite often without a word.
But the adolescent love here is not just about innocence or raging hormones, and cinema and music are not mere aesthetic pleasure. They are agents of rebellion, of creative anarchy. Hopefully, for the better. In a scene, Mukund describes his classmate as “solid chaalu” for having a boyfriend, the uncle is quick to prompt that she is bold and it’s the audacious, defiant ones like her who make society progress, not the meek nerds.
The school portrayed in Shala is about authority and suppression. But there’s another element in Mukund’s dreams which is upheld as the ideal. It has no benches, teachers, blackboards, history or geography: it’s a shala for wandering minds and free birds.