The New York Indian Film Festival played host to several Shakespeare adaptations this year. Among them were Bornilla Chatterjee’s The Hungry and Abhaya Simha’s Paddayi, relatively direct transpositions of Titus Andronicus and Macbeth, though unassuming upland bullying drama Noblemen decided to use the Bard more obliquely: as a moral backdrop for its twisted tale.
Set in a co-ed boarding school but focusing on boys in their volatile teen years, Vandana Kataria’s debut feature sees a Founder’s Day The Merchant of Venice production host a tale of mercy gone awry. It’s a nuanced piece that spirals into stomach-churning violence (more implied than overt, yet unflinchingly realistic) as the unique nexus of Indian Christian schooling and silent, deadly homophobia come to an explosive head.
The film plays like a B-side to Ukranian drama The Tribe – Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s side-scrolling Sign Language stunner – not only in its boarding school setting, but in its brutal execution of an identical theme. Kataria’s Noblemen, while largely withheld to a point of minimalism, bursts sporadically with an unsettling energy as it explores the circumstances in which monsters create more monsters.
When Shay (Ali Haji), a quiet tenth grader at Noble Valley High picks up the role of Bassanio, he draws the ire of popular senior student Baadal (Shaan Groverr), the son of a famous actor. Baadal represents a vital facet of India’s “elite,” British-influenced schooling environment – the privileged, envious safeguardians of a status quo based on class strata – though Baadal himself doesn’t feature in the film as much as his jealousy would indicate. What Baadal wants is simple: for Shay to drop out of the play so he can usurp the lead role. How he goes about it though, enlisting the help of a violent bully, opens a more complicated web while the characters learn about Shakespeare’s tale of revenge and forgiveness.
Enter Arjun (Mohammed Ali Mir), a twelfth-grade athlete and Prefect with the looks of a supermodel. On the surface, Arjun has it all, which is why Baadal both gravitates toward him and seeks his help in harassing Shay and his best friend Ganzu (Hardik Thakkar). Where the sexually confused Shay and the overweight Ganzu bond through being outcasts, a genuine camaraderie between folks on the social margins – Baadal and Arjun gravitate toward one another through mutual detachment. Caring isn’t cool, especially caring about girls – Baadal also wants to sleep with Shay’s friend Pia (Muskkaan Jaferi), though Arjun doesn’t let him catch feelings – but what is cool to Baadal, Arjun and their lackeys is the assertion of absolute dominance.
Noble Valley’s twisted morality is at odds with the outside world, though it remains perfectly in line with schools of its ilk. Noble birth, as the school’s name secretly betrays, is the ultimate social capital. It’s license to steal, to drink, and above all, to bully. Though on the more disturbing side is the manipulation of the Noblemen’s ideas of loyalty, extending to the bullied keeping quiet no matter what, even if it means guzzling a bottle of Phenyl in the hopes of escaping this bizarre framework. To the more popular Noblemen, there’s nothing worse than seeking comfort in authority figures whose primary purpose is to care. If a teacher is kind to you, or you’re kind to a fellow student, it only ups the odds of you being assaulted in the bathroom.
Shay’s sensitivity towards injured animals earns him homophobic slurs. It likely has nothing to do with him secretly being gay, though homophobia undoubtedly forms the underlying structure of the Noblemen’s backward ethical framework. Shay’s sexuality comes to the forefront of the narrative when kindly, attractive theatre instructor Murali (Kunal Kapoor) takes Shay under his wing, though it’s spotlighted less as an exploration of sexuality itself and more as a matter of caring and wanting to be cared for. In Noblemen, while queerness is forced to be quiet, it’s tender. Arjun on the other hand, carries himself with a more overtly hyper-masculine energy, both in locker-room talk and raunchy behaviour. However, director Kataria’s gaze still frames Arjun through a lens of queerness. His physical proximity to boys like Shay in any given frame verges on homoerotic, though as if keenly aware of how the camera is making him look, Arjun quickly subverts this dynamic through violence and cruelty. Even when Arjun seems like he could lean towards kindness and learn from his transgressions, the toxic cycle of traditional maleness takes charge, as paternal disappointment leads him further down a path of sadism.
Where Arjun too was created, at some point, Noblemen is about the effects these cycles of cruelty can have on even kinder kids like Shay. Whether Arjun & co. are ever fully aware of Shay’s sexuality is left ambiguous (Murali, a newcomer to Noble Valley, wonders whether it’s what put a target on Shay’s back, but he’s uncertain), though what remains crystal clear is that these learned masculine impulses are at odds with Shay’s existence regardless. Arjun, Baadal and their collective male worldview – in which empathy is iniquity and seeking it is even more so – are antonymous to everything that makes up Shay. His generosity, his humility, his queerness, his femininity. Qualities that endear him to fellow victims like Ganzu and Pia, who have seen the worst of male violence and have suffered in solitude, yet qualities these bullies seek to rob him of. Hath not Shay hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as Arjun is? If you prick him, does he not bleed? Tragically, he does bleed. Quite literally so. Shay’s torment begins to resemble countless school and college horror stories of bullying taken too far, and showing mercy doesn’t do him any favours.
In some alternative universe, Noblemen is a feel-good story. Its commitment to realism on all fronts however, a stylistic choice that lures viewers into a sense of short-lived comfort, leads it down an uncomfortable path. Not only in terms of the physical and emotional trauma Shay is forced to endure, but the effect this unrelenting cruelty has on soul. What hurts as much as seeing an innocent character in pain is seeing that innocence be stripped away, as Shay begins to bring down everyone in his orbit just to cope with his circumstance. Even Murali, a teacher with the tools to be kind, finds himself caught up in an increasingly merciless tangle, shackled by structures that won’t allow him to use his kindness as even the school touts “toughness” as virtue.
Noblemen is more cautionary tale than consoling parable. Perhaps to the chagrin of those looking for comfort in times of personal or political uncertainty, but by diving deep into the mechanisms by which cruelty not only manifests, but continues, the film articulates unspoken horrors within noble institutions that pride themselves on cultural superiority. It is beneath the boys’ suits and ties and emboldened blazers that this culture of silence manifests, and it’s through the imposing of silence as social currency that men are turned into monsters. Kataria’s prime focus is what the monster used to be. The tragedy lies knowing how much more the monster could have been.