Vandana Kataria’s debut feature Noblemen, is set in an elite boys’ boarding school, and zeroes in accurately on what makes some men so toxic. The strange rites of passage that supposedly turn boys into men, include savage ragging, cruelty, homophobia, misogyny, and that golden rule that favours bullies—snitching is the worst crime that invites dire consequences. A kindly teacher tells a tormented boy that fear feeds bullies, but when his mind snaps, the teenager turns into the kind of monster that he despises.
Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice is the prism through with the story of Shay (Ali Haji) is narrated. Taunted as “mamma’s boy” and “faggot” by the school bullies Arjun (Mohommad Ali Mir) and Baaadal (Shaan Grover), he does unfortunately fall into the ‘sissy’ stereotype when overt machismo is called for in the testosterone-soaked milieu. He is the kind of boy who rescues a wounded bird and would rather act in the school drama production than play sports. His best friends are also those who fall out of the jock circle—Ganesh (Hardik Thakkar), the genial fat guy and Pia (Muskaan Jaferi), one of the handful of girls—daughters of staff– admitted into the school.
When the drama teacher Karthik Murali (Kunal Kapoor) casts The Merchant Of Venice, Shay gets the part of Bassiano, that Baaadal covets—the boy who spells his name with three ‘A’ s is the son of a Bollywood star and believes he deserves the star part. To get Shay to leave the play, he and Arjun put Shay and Ganesh through such vicious harassment, that the latter attempts suicide and the former embarks on a plan of revenge that lead to horrifying tragedy.
The house master (Ivan Rodrigues), who has a drinking problem, sees some of the torture Shay suffers but ignores Murali’s requests for intervention, because, boys will be boys. The head-in-the-clouds principal (MK Raina) wants to keep the campus free of drugs, but does not know how to deal with the other crises.
In the midst of all this trauma, Shay’s confusion about his sexuality also comes to the fore—he vehemently denies being gay, but is aroused by the sight of Murali unclothed—in an exercise to get the actors in the play to lose their inhibitions, he makes them strip; in these oversensitive times, this would actually be enough to get him fired from any school.
Scripted by Kataria, Sunil Drego and Sonia Bahl, and performed with admirable sincerity by the young cast, Noblemen is a grim film to watch, but gives an unflinching view of what goes on in the school that looks from the outside like something out of an Enid Blyton book; inside it could well be a Kabir Singh factory.