To be fair, Chalk & Duster, starring Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla, is a well-intentioned film that appears to have its heart in the right place. It makes an impassioned plea to accord more respect and dignity to our teachers. But it does so through a combination of an outdated, amateurish script and shrill TV-soap treatment that you thought you’d seen the last of in the 80s.
Shabana is Maths teacher Vidya Sawant, and Juhi is science ma’am Jyoti Thakker, both beloved, committed educators at the modest Kantaben High School which is ruled with an iron fist by Cruella de Vil principal Kamini Gupta, played by Divya Dutta sporting an oversized wig and modeling what appears to be a whole range of Air India’s airhostess uniforms. Determined to torture the faculty until they resign so she can recruit stylish professors in their place, Kamini indulges in petty politics like doing away with teachers’ chairs so they have to take classes standing up.
It’s all a part of her shrewd plan to turn the school into a hip, international institution where celebrity kids can attend class. She’s hatched it in connivance with a greedy trustee (a hamming Arya Babbar) who wants to compete with the area’s top school, run by an old rival (Jackie Shroff).
The film’s dialogues are a laundry list of howlers; no wonder it’s hard to take the characters or the drama very seriously. Kamini sacks Vidya on false charges of incompetence, then addresses the faculty to say: “She was a question mark on the reputation of this school. And I hate question marks. I like full-stops.” How do you keep a straight face through stuff like this?
It’s a shame because some things in the film do work. By taking us into Vidya’s and Jyoti’s homes and introducing us to their families, director Jayant Gilatar gives us a strong sense of who these women are outside their classrooms, and what grounds them. These interludes, however, are brief, as Vidya’s dismissal and subsequent heart attack turn the melodrama meter up.
It all blows up when a TV reporter (played sincerely by Richa Chaddha) brings media attention to the harassment, and Jyoti turns crusader to get Vidya justice. In what has got to be the most exhausting, overlong climax ever, cameo-ing star Rishi Kapoor proceeds to host a 20-minute KBC-style quiz show that’ll decide the fate of the two teachers.
By this point Chalk & Duster, its noble intentions notwithstanding, has turned into a real slog. I was ready to sprint for the exit just so I didn’t have to endure another minute of this sloppy, misguided movie. Shabana Azmi and Juhi Chawla’s charming presence and sincere performances aside, this could well turn out to be one of the year’s most forgettable films.
I’m going with one-and-a-half out of five.