Chalk N Duster
Direction: Jayant Gilatar
Actors: Shabana Azmi, Juhi Chawla Mehta, Divya Dutta, Arya Babbar
Chalk N Duster, the story of two teachers, is a truly strange beast. It’s well-intentioned and sincere but also purposefully ridiculous. The characters are caricatures but there are moments when your eyes get moist — as when Juhi Chawla Mehta playing a science teacher named Jyoti gives a heartfelt speech about the value of teachers and why we need to revere them.
But then the film also has Shabana Azmi, playing a mathematics teacher named Vidya, teaching students BODMAS through a song. You have to see it to believe it.
The film, directed by Jayant Gilatar, pits education as a higher calling against education as a business. These generous, good-hearted teachers are traumatised by the wicked principal Kamini — Divya Dutta in a comical wig. Kamini aspires to make the Kantaben school a destination for children of the rich and famous. She cruelly declares: ‘We need upmarket teachers’. So she tortures the current teaching staff by taking away their chairs. Everyone has to teach standing up.
Kamini is backed by the owner of the school — a fabulously loutish Arya Babbar, who grunts: ‘Bas mere school ko number one banao’. The battle spirals and spills out into the media and the streets. Eventually all is decided by a Kaun Banega Crorepati-style quiz show, in which Vidya and Jyoti must demonstrate their knowledge of everything from ancient history to the workings of the internet. Obviously, then, it’s impossible to take Chalk N Duster seriously. But there is some pleasure to be had from watching Shabana and Juhi play off each other. Shabana has a lovely warmth, and Juhi, a sincere indignation. Together they pull off the most cartoonish scenes. It’s also fun to see so many talented actresses in one frame — Richha Chaddha and Zarina Wahab make an appearance.
I just wish Gilatar had given these fine ladies a better script — I think there’s one buried deep within this film, in fact.