With the film Noblemen hitting screens, actor Kunal Kapoor and director Vandana Kataria talk to team Box Office India about the concept, the response at film festivals and more
Box Office India (BOI): We saw the trailer and it’s very intense and hard-hitting. What made you decide to pick and adapt Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice?
Vandana Kataria (VK): Saregama had a project of picking up different works of literature from around the world and adapting them, so I picked The Merchant of Venice. The play is about the oppressed and the oppressors, and the oppressed rising up to take revenge. It seemed to be a perfect translation arriving at a school where you have the bullies and the bullied, and where the bullied one get ups and rises to take their revenge. It seemed to translate very well.
BOI: When you pick up something from the West and adapt it to suit Indian sensibilities, what are the key challenges that you face as a filmmaker?
VK: There are no real challenges because the stories are universal. Shakespeare’s stories may be written in and set in Britain but they have a universal appeal because they are all about the characters, be it Macbeth or King Lear. They are all characters and you understand them. Because human emotions are universal. Anger, hate, revenge, love and jealousy are universal emotions. So I don’t think I really had any trouble or difficulty adapting The Merchant of Venice into Noblemen.
BOI: Vandana, was Kunal always the first choice?
VK: Yes, always. We had a list. Kunal was on the top of the list. He said ‘yes’, and we didn’t have to go down the list. (Smiles)
BOI: Kunal, you have been very selective about your films. How did Noblemen fit your criteria of choosing film projects?
Kunal Kapoor (KK): There are three criteria for me. First is obviously the script and how interesting and exciting it is for me. Second is the character; have I done something like it before, am I getting a chance to do something new. Third and very important, is how passionate the people involved are about the film. I get very excited when I meet a director or a producer who really wants to do a film that means something to them, as opposed to just someone putting a project together. This film fit all three criteria. It is a great script. It was a part I had never played before, and Vandana was incredibly passionate about what she wanted to do. So it was pretty much an easy choice.
BOI: Speaking of your character, are you one of the good guys or the bad ones?
KK: Okay, so he is really a good guy.
VK: He is a nobleman, if I may say so.
KK: He is a drama teacher and, in fact, he is teaching The Merchant of Venice to these kids. What’s interesting about the film is that it plays out like The Merchant of Venice but he is unorthodox in the way he teaches. He believes that children have to be taught a certain way, which is very different from how the other teachers in the school teach, and that usually sets him on a collision course with the other teachers but the children love him.
The other thing is that in the film, he is somebody who is very mysterious; you do not know who he is or where he comes from. There is a sense of mystery around him. You know there is a mystery to this man but that history is not spelt out. It is a very interesting character. I was telling somebody that we all used to have a favourite teacher in school. Murli is that guy who all the students really like.
BOI: It reminds us of the film Dead Poets Society.
KK: Yes, but it is not like that. For me also, when I think of a teacher who is likeable, the first thing that comes to mind is Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society. He was amazing.
VK: But the comparison here is parallel to the unorthodox teacher that Murli is; the one who wants to do things differently from the way normal schools do; and the love of the students for their teacher.
KK: Also the fact that he is teaching something that is creative.
VK: He taught English in Dead Poets Society, Murli teaches theatre here.
BOI: This film has been screened at various international film festivals. What kind of response have you got?
VK: Internationally the response has been really good, be it at the American or the British film festivals. The film went to Berlinale too. People there told me, this is exactly what has been happening on our streets outside. So the truth is, like I said, human emotions are universal. If you have been bullied at any point in your life, which for some people is right there on the streets today, you will identify with this. Social media has made bullies more prevalent today. The film has been well-received because it has universal appeal. Our young protagonist, Ali Haji, who plays Shay in the film; the guy in the water in the poster; won an award at the New York Film Festival under the category of Best Actor.
BOI: Do you think that the exposure a film gets at a film festival helps it get a better theatrical run in India?
VK: I think so, a little bit. People still want to watch star-driven films in India. We look at our movies as a form of escapism. People have this notion that since they are paying money, they should be entertained. This film is entertaining but it has an issue along with it. For it to get traction and for it to have got this release, exposure at the film festivals does help. The audience also has this mindset that since a film has been screened at festivals, it will be a good film, so its message is absorbed better.
BOI: Don’t you think that with the lines blurring now, production houses are making these kinds of films, actors are doing these kinds of film and the audience is watching these kinds of films more than ever?
KK: Of course! If you look at the movies that even popular actors are doing these days, they are all movies where the stories are coming from our country. There was a phase in the ’90s and the early 2000s when films were made about the NRI. That is something very unreal. Films were more aspirational back then; they were about what you wanted to be. But now, as a country, we have evolved and we want to see stories that represent our country and are based on issues relevant to our country. I think that is a great thing and the fact that a lot of bigger stars are doing films like these, makes them scalable to a larger audience.
That said, it is still very challenging to make a film like Noblemen because bullying is one of those issues that is a really big one but is still treated like a very small, niche problem. I think that is completely wrong because it really defines what happens in a child’s life from there on. It can really, sort of, either make you or destroy you, what happens in school and college. If you go through bad experiences, they can live on for you, for the rest of your life. That is why I think a film like this is very challenging to do. So many of us have lived in boarding schools and lined up for water in the morning and…
VK: All of us lived in the same school while shooting the film. The dormitories shown in the film… we used to wait for the buckets of water with the whole crew.
KK: So yes, if you want to make a film on a subject like this you still have to do it in a certain way. It is changing but I hope it changes a lot more.
BOI: We were talking about unconventional cinema and you have always defined that right from your first film. What do you think it is about you that directors feel, it’s him we need, whenever something of this sort comes up?
KK: What is it about me? I have no idea. (Laughs) I worked with a very interesting director and she told she really wanted to work with me because ‘you have been around for a while but I have not seen enough of you and I still feel there is so much I can do with you’. She also said, ‘I still feel like I can see you in multiple roles because I have seen you but not enough’. So I guess that is one of the things. And I think I am somebody that is unconventional in that sense, so when there is something that is unconventional, I guess people think of me.
VK: Whatever his last director said is very correct. He is not overexposed. There are some actors whom you see so much that it becomes too much. You don’t want to see them again and again. He is a little under-exposed, and I think that helps. As a director you feel, yes I can transform him into this because he has not done it all yet.
BOI: Speaking of bullying, when you are making a film on a subject that is this sensitive, is there anything you keep in mind, anything you might be extra-careful to portray a certain way?
VK: Yes, we don’t want to sensationalise anything, don’t want to titillate. Ideally we want the audience to feel the right emotion and not the wrong emotion. I hope we have done that. Because we have children of our own, that was also a conscious thing. We do have some graphic imagery, so there was an effort to not have kids below 17, as it is adult content in some way. We were careful about all of that.
BOI: Kunal, these days we are seeing a lot of actors entering into the digital space. Any plans?
KK: Well, there is something that I have liked and I am in conversation about it. I think I would love go digital. It is a fantastic medium for a filmmaker and for an actor, because you get a chance to really explore a story and a character. Also, you don’t have to worry about the box office, and including songs, and making them popular. You can just do it the way you want to. I think this is the future, and yes there is something that I have liked.
BOI: We have also heard talk of a Don 3. There’s quite a lot of speculation…
KK: I honestly have no idea about Don 3. My role was limited to Don 2 and I don’t know what is happening to the third installment. I think there’s been speculation about Don 3 since Don 2 came out. Don is an iconic film, in the ’70s as well as now. I would love to see a Don 3 but honestly I don’t have any idea what’s happening about it.
BOI: Since the film is out now, what do you want the audience to take away from it?
KK: Well, we have been saying that when you don’t keep your monsters in check, they create monsters that can be even worse. I think that is not true just for school or college but for society as a whole. When you allow the monsters to get away with things, then that creates monsters that can be even more dangerous. I think as a society we should all be aware and stand up against them. If you don’t stand up at the right time, then things begin to disintegrate in society as well.
VK: Well, it’s the same thing and he said it better than me. If I can word it differently, violence begets violence and it is always a vicious circle. Revenge does not get you anything. It was the theme of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock loses everything at the end of that play.