When a film’s centrepiece is a nationally televised quiz contest, you would expect it to be finicky about facts. Researchers and academics will hopefully verify the answers provided in that in-film contest, but before it rolled around I had already lost faith in Chalk N Duster after a scene in which one character insists on speaking Hindi, saying, “Hindi hamari rashtrabhasha hai (Hindi is our national language)”. Err… False! India does not have a “rashtrabhasha”.
How can you make a film on education without doing your homework?
This faux pas is not the only problem with Chalk N Duster (CND), which has its heart in the right place but is pulled down by its mediocrity and its blinkered, uni-dimensional vision.
Chalk N Duster is set in a private school where a bunch of sweet people devote their lives to their students. The teachers are all uniformly good – some almost saintly – human beings. No mention is made here of teachers who are lazy, apathetic or deliberately teach badly in school so that children are compelled to hire them as private tutors. No mention is made either of monsters who dangle kids by their pigtails, bang little girls’ heads on walls and victimise students they dislike.
It is not this review’s contention that good teachers like the ones in this film do not exist. They do. Sadly, they are not in a majority. In fact, the outstanding ones – sincere, diligent, intelligent, kind, skilled, effective like Vidya Sawant of Chalk N Duster – are definitely in a minority.
If this was a film only about one particular teacher, a paean to its protagonist would have been acceptable. But Chalk N Duster positions itself as a thesis on the education system, and in its black-and-white worldview, all teachers are flawless, no questions asked, no arguments brooked, full stop.
The story is of Vidya (Shabana Azmi) and her young colleague Jyoti Thakur (Juhi Chawla) at Kantaben High School, Mumbai. Enter: Cruella de Vil. Kamini Gupta (Divya Dutta), the new principal, sets out to make Kantaben sought after among the city’s rich and famous. Towards this end, rather than firing the present employees, she harasses them in the hope that they will choose to quit. The film is about how Jyoti rises in protest when a gross injustice is meted out to Vidya.
Despite the ham-handed writing, Shabana and Juhi lend some emotional resonance to Chalk N Duster with their innate acting abilities and warm on-screen chemistry. Sadly, their endearing younger-woman-older-woman friendship is overshadowed by the film’s all-pervasive ineptitude.
So keen is CND on its no-teacher-can-be-faulted line that it slams Kantaben’s administration when it pulls up a teacher for being just four minutes late, but later hints at her being a habitual late-comer. Is it wrong to demand punctuality from teachers? What does that even mean?
CND is particularly amusing in its stereotyping of Kamini. The evil witch without any redeeming qualities is a single woman. She says “main bhi akeli hoon” in a discussion about a widowed teacher and her son, but with no specifics offered and no child in sight, one is left to assume she is one of those things our films still seem to consider so dreadful in women: a spinster or worse, a divorcee, and a childless one at that. She is the only woman with short hair among the main characters and in one close-up of her head, we see that she even colours it red. I was almost expecting the director to round off the cliché by showing her smoking, drinking and sleeping with her boss ’cos, you know, in the world according to Bollywood that’s what ‘bad girls’ do.
Her singleton status is sought to be emphasised by Vidya and Jyoti’s loving relationships with their supportive spouses, played by the very likeable Girish Karnad and Sameer Soni. How often does a Hindi film show a husband apologising to his wife for a mistake? That too happens here.
Unfortunately for Chalk N Duster, these two couples are not its focal point, India’s education system is, and in that discussion, it suffers from an absolute lack of nuance. Jyoti is right when she speaks of the low salaries teachers are paid in India, but other troublesome questions are left out.
How, for instance, does it impact the profession when women are encouraged to be teachers not because of their own inclinations but because “yeh ladkiyon ke liye sabse acchha profession hai (it’s the best profession for girls)” since teachers’ timings and holidays coincide with their children’s timings and holidays, and they tend to be back home before their husbands? Do most men who like teaching veer towards universities because of the better pay, considering that they are expected to be their family’s primary, if not sole, breadwinners? Does this not deprive schools of many able men who might otherwise have opted to be schoolteachers?
Too much else is wrong – silly, actually – with Chalk N Duster. Such as that tacky, awkwardly choreographed song BODMAS. Jackie Shroff hamming the part of a rival school owner is a poor caricature of himself. The bright spark in the supporting cast is the immensely dignified Zarina Wahab as Kantaben’s ousted principal Shastri. The casteist stereotyping intrinsic to the choice of surnames for the two principals is inescapable though.
It is a mark of Bollywood’s extreme gender bias that the likes of Shabana and Juhi must, more often than not, compromise on quality if they wish to play heroines. These remarkable women deserve better than this clumsy, even if well-meaning, film. So does the teaching profession.