A refreshing break from all kinds of mainstream movies, Shala (2011) provides a glimpse into teenage love during schooldays, in a rural setting and backdrop of Maharashtra, India. It is a movie that will take many Maharashtrians on a trip down the nostalgic lane.
The lead character is Mukund, a student in the 9th grade, who falls in love with the charming girl, Shirodkar. Mukund is among the brightest in his class and the movie does a good job in portraying him as one of those who are intellectually a level above their peers, without being snobbish about it. There is the usual palette of teachers, from kind and liberal to the harsh disciplinarians, that one finds in any average Indian school. There are the admonishing but loving parents, and there are groups of classmates who hang out together after school to secretively stare at the village girls as they pass by the road. There are lakes where one sits by the rocks in introspection or for close talks with a friend, and there are mountains and sunsets evoking the earthy flavors of rustic life. Diego Romero’s cinematography captures all this vividly, with a mix of close ups and vistas, with a level of sophistication that was absent in Marathi films for decades.
Teenage love is a difficult subject, and Shala’s endearing aspect to me is that it does justice to it, treating it with delicacy and care. Teenage love is almost always surreptitious as it happens under the suspicious supervision of grown-ups; it starts out in a psychological state where one is unaware of it at the beginning and realization dawns slowly; it is pure, driven by romance and not lust; it is infantile in the sense that a meeting of the eyes feels like a passionate kiss; and finally, it is almost always doomed to be lost forever. Shala encompasses and treats all these aspects with sensitivity and charm.
Ketaki Mategaonkar’s casting as the charming Shirodkar is a huge statement. She is not beautiful in any conventional sense, but the movie makes her beautiful as it makes you look at her through Mukund’s eyes. Mategaonkar does a passable job with her role, primarily exuding shyness and charm, but also revealing that unspoken acknowledgment of love in her eyes. On the other hand, Anshuman Joshi’s performance as Mukund is the backbone of the movie and he shoulders that responsibility with amazing grace. He is masterful in the entire repertoire of emotions, and is a natural actor.
Most of the background cast of grown-ups do a passable job, with some scenes becoming awkward due to amateurish performances. The music is pleasant and unobtrusive for the most part, which is an achievement in Marathi cinema. Sentimentality oozes beyond acceptable limits only once or twice, and the emotional quotient is held in admirable restraint throughout the movie.
All in all, a pleasant movie that could have been better with a better supporting cast, but nevertheless can be enjoyed thoroughly.