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Rough Book movie review: A simplistic, textbook interpretation of India's brain-drain epidemic

Rahul Desai | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST
  • Director\'s third film in three years after \'The Xpose\' and \'Gour Hari Dastaan\'
  • Stars Tannishtha Chatterjee and newcomer Amaan Khan.
  • Lack of craft and nuance trumps good intentions.
Rating: 2 stars

Rough Book is a naïve little film that starts out as a disclaimer against the rotting monotony of the Indian educational system, but ends up unknowingly propagating yet another gloomy brick-in-the-wall scenario. This isn't the first glaringly obvious picture director Ananth Mahadevan has painted. Even though Gour Hari Dastaan (2015) thrived on its inspirational subject, it had Vinay Pathak pottering through his retired-freedom-fighter role, straining to derive sympathy with an act that should have ideally been his career-defining performance.

This deliberateness borders into a land of kindergarten simplicity in 'Rough Book'. Worse, none of the makers seem to realize that their inherent ideology is part of the long-term problem.

Back in high school, my understanding of education being different from 'learning' was molded by the arrival of a Spanish-born Biology professor. He would chuck away curriculums, design his own hand-written pun-filled question papers, sneer with disdain at the word "syllabus" and enlighten us about the practical application of seemingly useless theories. His unorthodox innovation holds stead even fifty years after he taught my father - an indomitable institution, an experience, that many movies over the years have attempted to internalize. These memories are somewhat tarnished by the caricature-ish climate of this film.

Here, it's Physics teacher Santoshi (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a fairly intense lady who, in the midst of divorcing her corrupt tax-officer husband, decides to bestow her creativity upon Presidency College's Class 12-D (for 'Duffers', given the division on basis of intelligence and grades). I suppose Mr. Mahadevan imagines her to be the desi Michelle Pfeiffer (from 'Dangerous Minds') to a bunch of tech-savvy, directionless and longhaired (always, the unsavory influence of pop culture and 'art') kids. They're the proverbial 'African-American' bunch of misunderstood underdogs who will, eventually, teach their teachers the meaning of education.

Never mind that they end up using the infamous IIT-JEE entrance exams as a disturbing metaphor for ultimate success. Never mind that these rejects are never given a chance to remotely consider any other career trajectory path. In fact, Santoshi and her merry gang of Ninja mentors coerce them into cramming for the boards as well as the entrances - setting the platform for their future selves to abandon their plush job, cobble together a startup, or give up everything and become an author and filmmaker. Irony feels like a straight-A student here.

There is no point made about how dreams are quelled early by the onset of premature rat races. All we see here is how learning can be fun (play guitar, flirt a bit, progressive accents) instead of mundane, and productive instead of grade-driven. By teaching the laws of gravity on a basketball court, by making the class dancer show his moves and later encourage him with, "Treat this chemistry lab as your dance floor, Steve," and by putting a snooty South-Bombay type (Kaizaad Kotwal) in charge of the college - come on, tell me something new.

There's a scene early on that demonstrates the filmmaker's own supply-and-demand predicament. Santoshi, who visits her SOS Children's village-running mother for inspiration, is told gently how she was named after the film 'Jai Santoshi Maa.' Now, there's no way this can be the first time ever she has been told this story; she's in her mid-30s, with an unusually devotional name, and is to be bombarded with firefly metaphors (because, nature). So many writers here make this mistake: in their pursuit of feeding information and moods to viewers, they overlook the basic communicative nature of relationships. These intimate tidbits logically belong to memories, the very cores, of our protagonists.

This film could have worked a decade ago, when a duopoly of engineering and medical colleges preyed on generations of paranoid parents. This could perhaps make sense in small towns where it's still believed that colleges have students' best interests in mind, or that tuition classes are non-profitable necessary initiatives.

But surely, there has to be a more responsible, and less pronounced, way to put across these scams, without making it look like a school play. Rough Book fails to be an affecting and timely film. Its lack of relevance lies in its first-bencher, textbook interpretation of India's most legal epidemic.

First published: 24 June 2016, 12:44 IST
Rahul Desai @ReelReptile

Rahul Desai is a full-time Federer enthusiast and avid traveller who absolutely must find a way to reach Europe once a year. In his spare time, he reviews films, aspires to own a swimming pool and whines about the lack of palatable food in Mumbai.