In the innocuously titled Chalk N Duster, director Jayant Gilatar sets out to add a new villain to the pantheon. Gabbar Singh. Mogambo. Dr. Dang. And now, Kamini (Divya Dutta). Don’t be fooled by the fact that she’s the headmistress of a high school. In her quest to make the school “No. 1,” she increases fees. She tells weeping teachers that their children can no longer study for free. She wants upmarket teachers, so she removes the chairs from the teachers’ tables inside class – now they have to stand throughout, and maybe some of them will leave, exhausted. She even changes their assignments. The Hindi teacher, a portly middle-aged man who’s second to none in his understanding of Tulsidas, is now blowing the whistle, sweating it out in PT class. And what does Kamini do when all this hell is being unleashed? She sits in her room, applying lipstick, while an assistant helps her choose a dress from an online portal. But even that comes second to her most heinous deed. (I hope you’re covering the eyes of your children if they are under 13.) She cancels the complimentary refreshments. A cup of tea will now cost… Rs. 7. No wonder one of the teachers remarks, upon seeing her, “Lo, aa gayi Hitler.” I kept waiting for Kamini to install a pit of lava into which she’d lower teachers who asked for more chalk.
“In India, 90% of children don’t complete school,” we’re told, at the beginning. This sobering fact did not merit this silly, preachy film, which could have been called Black N White. Kamini is the devil. All the teachers are angels, paragons of commitment, patience and everything else the Gita tells you about teachers. (It doesn’t say anything about teachers? According to this movie, it should.) I left the theatre imagining that the maths teacher who used to pinch us and the chemistry teacher with an unerring aim with the duster when she caught one of us talking were figments of my imagination. Juhi Chawla plays Jyoti. Shabana Azmi plays Vidya. See those names? Light. Education. There are more symbols in this film than in the periodic table. Richa Chadda plays a TV journalist, and the scene in which her Gujarati identity comes to the fore begins with her munching on dhoklas.
For a while, things are Hunky N Dory. Vidya teaches mathematics through song, with students rising in time to sing the chorus, which goes, “BODMAS… BODMAS… BODMAS.” Jyoti, meanwhile, smiles sweetly and says, “Hamein to garv hona chahiye that we’re in this noble profession,” though she really may be doing this job only to get out of the house, where her husband (Sameer Soni), a computer salesman, keeps saying things like, “I am the hard drive. You are the motherboard. And our son is the processor.” But soon, Kamini strikes. Vidya is sacked. Jyoti is so shocked when she gets the news, in Chemistry lab, that she drops her test tube in her hand. It falls to the floor and breaks, having served its purpose as this film’s approximation of a pooja ki thali.
The situation is grave. Vidya is the family’s breadwinner. Her husband (Girish Karnad) is in a wheelchair, and her daughter is still studying. Come to think of it, all teachers are in grave situations. Another one is raising her child all by herself, after the death of her husband. Surely not implausible situations on their own – but Gilatar seeks to mount such a sympathetic case for the plight of teachers today that he keeps piling on the misfortunes. His earnestness is downright hilarious. You begin to wonder if, along with Chemistry and Biology, there’s an hour for Tragedy. Even so, the subject is such that I misted up once, when Jyoti speaks of how we respect and reward the soldiers who protect the nation, but forget the teachers who educate its children. Aren’t we all guilty of having moved on, with very little time to remember our teachers? But they deserve more than this shrill drama, which – bizarrely, in its last half-hour – morphs into a Kaun Banega Crorepati-type show, with a quizmaster (“and above all guest appearance” Rishi Kapoor) testing Jyoti and Vidya about their capabilities. Sample question: “Identify the male dancer in this video.” I suppose this knowledge will help in the maths classes, when it’s time to teach ek… do… teen… cha cha cha?
- BODMAS = see here
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