In a room full of impressionable students, the new and rather likeable drama teacher Mr Murali (Kunal Kapoor) states the primary theme of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — revenge. No one contradicts, the students look on. A reading such as this — bypassing the comic embellishments assiduously bestowed by the playwright, bypassing also the friendship between the principal characters, Antonio and Bassanio — lays the play bare in its primal form, one where there is an exigent moral crisis, where one is right only by wronging someone else, and one where the unaligned scales of justice demand to be squared off by revenge. This interpretation, not particularly singular but troublingly adult, introduces a moral compass and plants seeds of tragedy in one of Shakespeare’s most famous comedies.
In Vandana Kataria’s directorial debut, Noblemen, this scene assumes particular importance not just because the students are about to stage the play and are informed of its pivotal theme, but because it discloses the intent of the film and the characters: the students in Noble High School share as crude a vindictive streak as the Venetians they are about to emulate on stage, their age or setting hardly acting as an impediment. And yet, the similarities are not glaring, the adaptation hardly literal.
In the far-removed boarding school, there are no money lenders, no conniving Jew asking for a pound of flesh. There are students vying for roles in the play, rather there is a son of a Bollywood superstar Baaadal (Shaan Grover) convinced that he can play Bassanio better than Shay (Ali Haji). Shay, Baaadal believes, is a faggot, unfit to win over the love of Portia (to be played by a girl Baaadal likes). Kataria links this premise — of apparent harmless friendly rivalry — with the bard’s comedy by attempting not a counterfactual reading of the play but a mordant re-telling of it where, much like its primary source, the contention is not to belong but is played out against those who do and those who do not.
The merchant in The Merchant Of Venice has everyone’s sympathy and admiration. Even though the name is never spelt out, one assumes Antonio to be the merchant of Venice Shakespeare dedicates the title to. It is he who exhibits all the qualities befitting of a protagonist. Standing in stark contrast is another merchant, Shylock, his scheming nature well-known, his (evil) reputation preceding him. And yet, what leads to the complete otherisation of Shylock by the rest is not his apprehended malfeasance but the fact that he is a Jew among the Christians, a fact that is uttered with disdain. The slights directed at him constitute of belittling and mocking him due to this. Even an otherwise compassionate Antonio displays no mercy, resorting to ridiculing Shylock, calling him “misbeliever, cutthroat dog”, spitting on his Jewish clothes. Abound with such instances, the play is often read as anti-semitic.
Perhaps recognising how closed and limiting an argument of the play just being anti-semitic is, Kataria, in her re-reading of the text, treats Shylock as less of a person and more as an idea that is scorned for not conforming with the rest, a contrarian who does not follow the herd, a liminal figure who rattles and enrages the rest for standing at the fringes with marked comfort.
She distils the various shades of Shylock’s otherness in Shay, strips them of all its pernicious attributes, transforms them into something benign — Shay, unlike his bratty, adrenaline-lulled classmates, likes poetry and drama — and shows how that does not change the way he is (mis)treated. Actions replace words in Noblemen, as Shay is relentlessly abused, attacked and harassed. Try as he might, he just does not seem to fit. He is derided and bullied. He, then, in an explicable way, comes closest to Shylock. And yet, on the surface, the only thing alike between them seems to be their phonetically-similar names. Shay, who could not bear to part with a pet bird, is a far cry from the sinister Jew who demanded a pound of flesh. The identity of a Jew then as the sole reason for being mistreated then becomes incidental, what remains crucial is the identity of someone who does not, and will not belong.
By choosing an unlike Shylock, but Shylock all the same, as the lead of her story, the director’s compassion is revealed. But Kataria, in her film, does more than just exhort sympathy for the character. She humanises him and justifies his rage. She does that by convincing the drama teacher, as well as us, that Shay is best fit to play Bassanio — a startlingly neutral character, whose presence in the play reveals less about himself and more about Antonio’s munificence — and then, through the course of the film, documents the moral degradation. This descent of a seemingly good man becoming evil — of Shay becoming Shylock while trying with all his might to remain Bassanio — and not an evil person becoming more evil not only lends a sense of urgency and justice to the film’s outlandish climax but also questions the nobility of the Noblemen and points an imaginary accusatory finger at their hearts of darkness, and not the other way round.
Several critics, as well as author Howard Jacobson, writer of the novel Shylock, Is My Name: The Merchant of Venice Retold (where he puts Shylock as the protagonist, gives him a voice and addresses the unresolved ending of the play) do not endorse the fact that the playwright was being particularly unkind to the Jews. The truth though remains that he was not kind either: the play not only ends with Shylock’s plans of revenge being foiled but also with a possibility of him being converted to a Christian (as suggested by Antonio), thereby stripping him of his identity.
In Shylock Is My Name: The Merchant of Venice Retold, when asked by a character would he have really done what he threatened to, an exasperated Shylock says, “Had I done so, they would not have hesitated to take my heart”. In the film, Kataria not only records Shay’s journey of becoming Shylock but lets him have his revenge. And as he does, Shylock’s prophesy laden with fear is fulfilled. As Shay takes Antonio’s pound of flesh, albeit figuratively, he transfigures into someone more grotesque, more acrimonious: a man without a heart, a Noblemen.
In many ways, this thwarts the belief that the play ends with which advocates conversion into Christianity — of Shylock becoming one of them— as a way of redemption for the Jew. Shay’s conversion into a Noblemen resembles a culmination of his complete, unequivocal moral corruption.
The film then foregrounds the tragic undersides of a play that parades as a comedy and ultimately reveals, that even in the act of revenge, there was no possibility of vindication for Shylock. His tragedy consists of being oft-remembered as one who wanted Antonio’s pound of flesh, and not as one who was continuously bullied and thereby compelled to make such a demand, one whose unsuccessful plans of exacting revenge makes the play a comedy and not as one who lived his own tragedy, one who was avenged upon by the rest for not being like them.