Their new movie may not spark off social change in the country's education system, but Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla hope it will at least make you spare a thought for your teacher
Actresses Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla laugh and exchange notes about what's been happening as they pose for photos at a suburban five-star, a week before the release of their film, Chalk n' Duster. The two play teachers, considered outdated and old fashioned, and thrown out by an evil headmistress (played by Divya Dutta), hired to modernise the school.
"It's not really an issue-based film, but one about two teachers trying to regain their dignity and status. It's a human story," says Azmi, who plays the older and wiser Vidya, while Juhi plays Jyoti, the younger, impulsive one. The film is directed by debutant director Jayant Gilatar, and written by husband and wife duo Ranjeev Verma and Neetu Verma.
"I read the script at one go. It was surprising and moving, and, above all, uplifting. That's why I said yes," says Chawla flashing her brilliant smile, "This story speaks of an issue, like education, in an entertaining way. It was speaking of what happens behind the scenes at schools, and how it's becoming more businesslike. It gripped my attention completely." For Azmi, apprehension turned into a yes when she met Juhi. "I saw her enthusiasm and involvement. She was willing to take ownership of the movie, and that attracted my attention," says Azmi, sipping on a glass of hot water.
They both did realise that the job of a teacher wasn't easy. And preparing for their roles took some consideration. "I had never seen the teacher other than as a person who tells you what to do and gives you homework, but she has her own world, her own problems," says Juhi, "I had no clue how to prepare. I thought I'd meet the writer, who is also a teacher, but that didn't happen. Eventually, I just went to drop my kids at school and would sit in the car and watch their teachers and read their body language." For Azmi it was easier, as she based the character on her sister-in-law Sulbha Arya, also a theatre and film actress who has appeared in movies like Kal Ho Na Ho, and who was once a teacher. "I have watched her marking papers and carrying books, and working. So, for me, I had a readymade example."
It's a small movie with a small budget, but that made no difference to the two acclaimed actresses. All they want is that everyone comes to the halls. "It's made simply, and the takeaway is the reaffirmation of the human, in an elevating, feel good way. It will kindle that warmth in you towards the teacher who made you the person you are today, but you were too young to give credit to then. At no point am I even thinking of competing with the big films, we are just hoping that we get some word-of- mouth traction," says Azmi.
It's a relevant film as well, and could shed light on what a good teacher "should" be like. "I come from a family which feels that art should serve a social purpose, but not every movie is binding to it. I believe art has the possibility of creating a climate of sensitivity where change can occur," says Azmi.
"Seeing a movie about Gandhi doesn't mean you behave like Gandhi. But aapki mitti thodi geeli hoti hai. And there is sensitivity, and that is the maximum a work of art can do." Juhi agrees, "If you leave someone with an idea, it definitely grows in them. You can't force a thought on someone, but gently suggest it to them. but That's what this film will do."