There’s something about National Award-winning director Nagesh Kukunoor’s films. They aren’t perfect products, but his attempt to be honest with the subjects has always been refreshing. Be it Hyderabad Blues, Rockford or Aashayein. The 1999 film Rockford is one of the most telling products of its time, as far as the student-teacher relationship is concerned. In fact, its relevance cannot be questioned even in 2018.
At the surface of it, Rockford is a charming coming-of-age tale about a boy who’s stationed at a boarding school. The film’s protagonist is Rajesh Naidu (played by Rohan Dey), whose life takes an interesting turn when he arrives at Rockford High School for Boys. Despite mediocre performances and bad editing, the movie manages to evoke a sense of struggle that students face in schools. There are instances of bullying bordering on sexual assault, and a particularly horrifying scene featuring a brother (of the church) molesting the primary character. Of course, it’s a Jesuit school, so there’s pressure to behave a certain way, and since there are no girls in the academy, the competition to be the ultimate model of masculinity is out there in the open for everyone to see.
A scene that stands out in the film is when after facing defeat at the hands of Rajesh, Raja (another student) threatens to kiss and finger our hero to teach him a lesson on popularity. There’s barely any light in the sequence, and Raja is uncomfortably close to Rajesh, almost blocking out his entire supply of air, it invokes shock and you feel real fear for Rajesh. One thing to remember here is that Rockford had released nearly two decades ago, and in nearly all its reviews, the movie was dismissed as just another generic tale of a kid attempting to come to terms with his environment. But Rockford had its moments.
There were some memorable scenes of Johnny Matthew (played by filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor) and Rajesh. Kukonoor plays a PT instructor, who is your quintessential ‘inspiring force’ of the movie. There’s a sequence where Rajesh asks Johnny to explain the term ‘shag’. What follows is a bemused Kukunoor striving to explain what masturbation means. Johnny aka Kukunoor reminds everyone of a friendly, well-meaning adult, who tries to do his best at adulting, but fails. He then offers to give Rajesh a book about sex in order to help him grasp the sexual world better. Now, a section of an audience might complain about the lack of understanding displayed by Johnny in the said scene, but remember the year the movie hit the theatres? The youth was all about the new age that was to usher in, they were waiting for 2000 to completely transform their lives. Y2K was something that everybody couldn’t stop talking about. People were trying to act liberated, but they weren’t really. And for the most part, we are still not entirely comfortable with the idea of sex unless it’s made light of, or included as a part of some dumb horror flick. And this is where all the talk about masturbation in the movie does a good job. Kukunoor’s character is hesitant because that’s how friendly adults would act if you approached them to discuss sex, or anything remotely related to the subject. Yes, even today.
Then there is the scene where Johnny encounters Rajesh for the first time. Johnny introduces himself as someone new to the institute, and so does Rajesh. There is a sense of equality that is established early on in the film. One trying to placate the other subtly of the newness and change. It’s a small thing, but it’s significant nonetheless. A trust is built as they share the mundane details. In another sequence, Johnny and Rajesh discuss the ‘love’ that Rajesh harbours for another teacher, Lily Vegas (portrayed by Nandita Das). Rajesh asks Johnny to give his honest opinion on whether he (Rajesh) would a stand a chance with Miss Vegas. It’s moments like these that make Rockford stand out in the crowd despite its shortcomings.