Sachin Tendulkar gets the applause, few remember Ramakant Achrekar. Says Shabana Azmi in Chalk n' Duster, where she plays a dignified maths teacher (Vidya) in a private school. We focus on the star, but miss out on the one holding the spotlight. She experiences the same joy to see her students excel, as Achrekar might have felt when Tendulkar entered the big league. It reminds us what lies at the heart of a true educationist.
While growing up, most of us would have had at least one teacher who played a pivotal role in our lives. The film's moralistic tone hammers this in for a little over two hours. But that isn't its greatest fault. But first, the high point. The film, which also stars Juhi Chawla (Jyoti) as a chirpy science and drama teacher, Divya Dutta (Kamini) as the conniving, ambitious principal, Girish Karnad as the supportive, chess-playing, wheelchair-bound husband of Azmi, Rishi Kapoor in a guest appearance, besides other well-known actors, has picked up a lesser known but an important theme of the times—the politics of education and the subsequent business of it. Dutta as the politicking cardboard figure thrives in making the lives of the old teachers hell so when they leave she can replace them with 'younger, prettier' versions that will enable the school to draw in children from richer families, up their rankings and get her a higher position. Weary with the struggle, the teachers turn to the media which is shown to take on an activist role and in the grand finale—a face-off over a TV quiz—good old merit, genuine friendships, and respect win over petty game-playing and greed.
The film tries to point out how in the pursuit of numbers—both in terms of profits and ranks—the real value of learning is being lost. How shiny new infrastructure in the guise of 'international standards' might be replacing quality education. How the key figures of our lives growing up, the teachers, fade out as life goes by.
The veteran actors do justice to their roles. But here is the fault—the shoddy presentation and the loose ends in terms of screenplay and direction. A song starring Chawla and her family looks like an advertisement for a car from the 1990s, camera work is dramatic at times, like the soap operas on television, and propaganda, anyone? Richa Chadha who plays a Gujarati television journalist with a national Hindi news channel tells the 'villains' to speak to her in the language of the nation.
The film has its heart in the right place but falls short in narrating its story. If you can overlook the packaging, the uniqueness of the subject will stay with you. It might even serve as a reminder to say hello to that teacher you forgot.
Film: Chalk n' Duster
Director: Jayant Gilatar
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Juhi Chawla, Divya Dutta, Aarya Babbar