Chalk And Duster
Story: Teachers Vidya Sawant (Shabana Azmi) and Jyoti Thakur (Juhi Chawla) impart knowledge and values to students in a middle-class school. However, when an ambitious shrew becomes the principal, they are forced to wage a ‘war’ to safeguard their legacy.

Review: 'Chalk N Duster' has its heart in the right place. Made with an intention of showcasing the worms in the current education system, where money often gets merit over capability; this film can be lauded to some degree. However, it flounders in the first half due to its tacky narrative approach. Told like a TV serial, it takes the oft-taken path of following the underprivileged on local train rides to the Mumbai chawl. Okay so the point of a teacher’s life being hard is made. Yet, it's predictable to see Shabana dabbing sweat with her sari pallav as she gets off an over-crowded Virar local, buying vada pav and keeping the positive spirit at home that has a handicapped husband (Girish Karnad) and their about-to-be chartered accountant daughter. The revered teacher also coaches the neighbourhood children for free!

This film’s objective is to prove that teaching is a demanding, underpaid and undervalued profession. But this feeble attempt to dignify it falls flat for clichéd characterisation, drab dialogues and a despicable story line.

The film ushers us into Kantaben High School, whose supervisor, Kamini Gupta (Divya Dutta) almost caricatures evil. In her introduction, she whips her staff, one at a time. She stops a teacher pouring over a canvas, to caustically note, “Horrible colour,” and interrupts a dance rehearsal with, “The steps aren’t good enough.” Brimming with intermittent rage, Gupta is ambitious, conniving and like great managers, a credit-stealer. Impressed with her plans to refashion the school, the school’s owner, Parekh promotes her as the principal. An instant makeover has Gupta now flaunting a bob, much like Rajesh Khanna in the 70s. She continues to infuse terror in the lives of teachers, with tactics like removal of chairs from classrooms and forcing the portly Hindi teacher take over PT class. The message: shape up or ship out. “The school will only become number one when we have up-market teachers who are young and smart,” she says. From the staff, the two who cross her the most are Math teacher Vidya Sawant (Shabana Azmi) and Chemistry teacher Jyoti Thakur (Juhi Chawla).

While Sawant is popular for her ability to employ songs and Sanskrit to help embrace mathematic formulae, Thakur is the favourite staff room mimic. When Sawant is terminated for incompetence, she suffers a heart attack and Thakur drives a social media rampage against the school authorities. The film culminates in a quiz competition hosted by Rishi Kapoor, where the terminated teachers must prove their worth. While Sawant is initially reluctant, she accepts only because “pavitra Sita ne bhi agnipariksha di thi”.

The film labouriously establishes Sawant’s middle-class existence with scenes of her sweating in a local train and shows her philanthropic side when she tutors slum kids for free. An insufferable TV shopping-esque montage of testimonials features Sawant’s ex-students who’re now NASA scientists, Ebola researchers at WHO and a group in graduation gowns who introduce themselves as, “We are IIT toppers and we thank Vidya ma’am.” All this to furnish Sawant’s competence. If only they’d invested in a competent writer.

We can’t tell why actors Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla would include this to their filmography. But it’s surely telling of their inability to read the script before signing on the dotted line. Azmi tries her best but she tries a bit too much. In the BODMAS song, she crosses her hands to make an “x” and spreads them over her head to make a “y” — she’s teaching algebra. Chawla is largely restrained, but croaks in the sappy climax.

The supporting cast has Samir Soni (as Thakur’s husband), a computer salesman who refers to himself as hard disk, his wife as motherboard, his son as processor and his wife’s job as RAM (jab tak chalta hain, fine). Veteran Girish Karnad is wasted as Sawant’s invalid husband who’s perennially preoccupied with chess.

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This one could’ve been a sensitive depiction of the deplorable state of academicians in our country. But it only ends up as a sorry story that provides unintentional laughs. Bunk this one to retain sanity.