March 29, 2019
Pranutan Bahl, Zaheer Iqbal, Mir Mohammed Mehroos, Mir Sarwar, Mozim Bhat, Mir Mohammed Zayan, Soliha Maqbool, Baba Hatim, Adiba Bhat, Hafsa Ashraf Katoo, Madikha Parvez Ratta, Bareen Faheem, Ahmed Rigoo, Neelofer, Hemant Kher
Hindi with Kashmiri
Sometimes sweet simplicity is all it takes.
Director Nitin Kakkar’s Notebook is set largely on a pristine lake in Jammu and Kashmir where an ex-Armyman gives a new career a shot, taking to teaching Kashmiri kids in a remote island school. Kabir is battling his own demons while coping with the unique challenges of the new job when he comes across a diary written by his predecessor.
Firdaus was not one to accept authority blindly. While at Wular Public School she poured her frustration, loneliness and life’s great questions on to the pages of that notebook, which ultimately falls into Kabir’s hands.
The young man is, expectedly, soon drawn to this woman he has not met but has come to know well through her innermost musings, and decides that he is in love with her. Truth be told, 20 years back I might have been moved by this love-across-barriers-of-space-and-time aspect of the film’s storyline, but the older me believes that while attraction is not something within our control, love is a decision and not a word to be bandied about lightly.
Still, Notebook works because the Firdaus-Kabir lurve angle is not rubbed in our faces beyond endurance, because the narrative style is filled with an innocent sincerity that is hard to find in mainstream commercial Hindi cinema these days, because the individual stories of Firdaus and Kabir are more intricate than the storyteller’s unassuming tone lets on (and of course it is natural that they would be attracted to each other since, after all, they were genuinely getting to know each other through their writings).
Most of all, Notebook works because of those children. Everything about them – the adorable cast, Firdaus’ commitment to them, Kabir’s increasing attachment for them, their playfulness, and one boy’s desperation for an education.
The trailer of Notebook emphasises the Firdaus-Kabir romance and relegates the children to the background, although the intersection of the bond developing between all of them is its actual selling point. No doubt there is space here for greater detailing and depth in the characterisation of most of the little ones, but there is still enough in the screenplay to make the interactions with these bright, mischievous darlings enjoyable, and to make the boy Imran in particular both memorable and heart-tugging.
Nitin Kakkar knows well how to make a political comment without lecturing his audience. He did it with rip-roaring humour in his debut film Filmistaan, and with endearing understatedness in last year’s Mitron that was pulled down solely and entirely by the decision to cast Jackky Bhagnani as the leading man.
Troubled Kashmir is obviously a fertile playing field for a filmmaker like him, and he does a commendable job of driving home the tensions and pain beneath the scenic tranquility of this jannat. The mother who takes a crucial decision for her children, a despairing father, a boy who can envision a future in which he is sucked into the bitterness but also sees a way out of this morass, a man who stood by friends when their lives were under threat, a woman in a patriarchal world who knows her mind and is unafraid to speak it, a man who gets a bird’s eye view of the human cost of war and does not casually brush aside any loss as “collateral damage”, they are all present in this short, charming tale beaming with an optimism that is perhaps occasionally simplistic but serves as a much-needed salve for the soul in the divisive times we live in.
Imran is played by the handsome child debutant Mir Mohammed Mehroos whose mature, deeply felt performance belies his age and inexperience. Each member of this ensemble has something to offer, but this new entrant deserves to be singled out, as does Mir Sarwar who plays his father with flair.
The adult debutants of the film are both proteges of producer Salman Khan, as media reports tell us. Pranutan Bahl who plays Firdaus is the granddaughter of screen legend Nutan. Zaheer Iqbal, Notebook’s Kabir, is reportedly Khan’s friend’s son. Unlike with the remake of Subhash Ghai’s Hero, here Khan has chosen well.
Pranutan was born to be before the camera. Neither she nor Zaheer would fit conventional Bollywood definitions of prettiness, but they possess an X Factor that counts for much more than that.
Notebook is based on the Thai film Teacher’s Diary whose writer-director Nithiwat Tharatorn and co-writers are duly credited here. Their screenplay has been adapted by Darab Farooqi with dialogues by Sharib Hashmi and Payal Asar.
Kashmir is not a mere gimmick in the reworking, it is a well-considered change of setting. Like the fact that Firdaus and Kabir belong to communities on opposite sides of the socio-political schism running through the state, the choice of place too is not underlined or turned into a sermon.
With the exception of Bumro, the soundtrack is not extraordinary when heard independently, but the songs are inserted nicely into the narrative and fit the mood of the film well. Bumro of course is infectious. This Kashmiri folk song was earlier used in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Hrithik Roshan-Preity Zinta-starrer Mission Kashmir. The loudness of that earlier film is a sharp contrast to the determined quietness of Notebook.
I can imagine some people seeing a saviour complex in a tension-ridden scene featuring Imran, his Dad and Kabir in Notebook, the sort of complex that usually dominates stories of race, caste and gender (look no further than this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Green Book), but to my mind that would be an unfair criticism in this case. The scene is a culmination of the actions of every single player in the drama until then, not Kabir’s alone, even though the others are not foregrounded in that moment.
The most problematic aspect of the film comes elsewhere, in the “ladkiyan sab aise hi hotey hai”, all-women-are-traitors line taken by one of the characters, that is left unresolved despite being a dominant track in so many mainstream Indian films and in the sense of male victimhood that pervades the backlash against feminism.
Notebook is not perfect, but like the sterling Kashmir waterscapes in the film camouflaging so much turmoil, and captured here so beautifully by cinematographer Manoj Kumar Khatoi, it too is worth a visit.
Rating (out of five stars): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: