Sunday ReRun: Notebook, the Most Delightful Romance of 2019

This is such a delightful little surprise of a movie! I really hope a lot of you were able to watch it. And if you weren’t, put it on your list to watch soon, because it is really wonderful.

Look at Salman Khan! Producing a really good movie! A good movie in every way, great story and script (lifted from a Thai film), good actors, good songs, good direction. And a nice small film too, a cheap film that can make a solid profit. It’s too bad everyone around the movie besides Salman was too freaking STUPID to appreciate it.

Image result for notebook 2019 poster

Here’s what irritates me. BollywoodHungama in their review said “NOTEBOOK is a niche, multiplex-type urban film”. Why? Why is it a niche multiplex type film? Because it isn’t filled with insane violence? Because it has pretty visuals and good songs? Because it has an intelligent plot? And “everyone” knows that poor people don’t like those things, poor people are dumb and only want anger and stupidity. If this film had gotten a decent promotional campaign and release, I am sure it could have found an audience and made a decent box office.

This is also showing why everyone casts star kids. If you made this same movie but with Janhvi and Tiger, it would have fixed all the promotion problems. The media would have written constant articles about the celebrity kids, twitter would be trending for or against them, and everyone would show up for this film out of curiosity to see how they did, and then end up enjoying it. Heck, that’s what happened with Salman’s Hero remake. But instead they made this movie with nice solid outsider actors (okay, Nutan’s granddaughter, but she wasn’t exactly instagramed her whole life), and paid the price in a total lack of publicity. Salman did his best, tweeting songs and stuff, but I didn’t see any news stories planted or much buzz anywhere. Except here! All you nice people nagged me and nagged me and I actually went to see the film and really really enjoyed it.

That’s the kind of movie it is. If you watch the trailers and the songs and you enjoyed the feel of them, you will also enjoy the movie. It’s the kind of nice small movie that would find an audience back in the old days when people actually watched trailers for themselves, instead of just listened to buzz and opinions about opinions. If Salman Khan’s film company can learn to keep up with the times and update their promotional strategies, and keep making good solid movies like this, Salman could maybe finally retire.

Okay, this is the No Spoiler review, but I am going to give a mini-spoiler. I spent this entire movie stressed, because it felt like the kind of film that would be happy and idyllic and simple, and then take a sudden turn for the tragic. And, it didn’t! There is no sad twist that you need to fear and wait for. Relax, enjoy the love, be happy.

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Whole plot in one paragraph:

I love this plot, because the idea is so simple and so easily translatable to any time and place you need. Our hero Zaheer Iqbal is a young soldier feeling lost, he takes a job teaching at a one room school in Kashmir. He is bored and alone and starts reading a notebook left behind by the last teacher, a young woman Pranutan Bahl. Her experiences and thoughts inform his reactions, he bonds with the kids and starts to feel cleansed. He goes to the city to find her and learns she is engaged. He also learns that his kids are failing, because he isn’t a good enough teacher for them. So he offers to leave at the end of the term. Her engagement falls apart and she returns to teaching at the same school, and finds her notebook there with his notes added. She falls in love with him through the notes he left. And finally, he surprises her one day at school, showing up just in time to save her from a disgruntled parent. It ends with them having tea together on the porch of the school.

Image result for notebook 2019 poster

You could set this same plot in the American West, in present day American Alaska, in Thailand (where the original was set), basically any time or place that has a remote school. There’s something really significant and special about the one room school house and the teachers there. It combines the lonely reflectiveness of the hermitage, with the sacrificing personal growth of parenthood. It is unique to each person, and yet the rhythm of the school year gives it a universal pattern. This movie reminded me of Those Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingall Wilder’s memoir of her years teaching school. And Anne of Avonlea, about Anne Shirley teaching school. And all the other books I have read about that particular experience.

I kept waiting for the film to shift, I kept thinking “I should enjoy these adorable children and soft lessons about human kindness and doing the right thing, because it’s going to turn into a big drama any minute now”. And it never does! The most heroic thing and the most romantic thing our hero and heroine do is simply try to be good teachers and help these kids learn. It’s a lovely small simple lesson, that all you have to do is the caring thing, and that is heroic and romantic enough.

It’s especially lovely in context of the Kashmir setting, with a Hindu Pandit hero and a Muslim heroine. His family was thrown out of their homeland, and he reacted by coming back and teaching school. Her parents were killed, and she reacted by teaching school. The father of one of their students is disturbing, has a gun, seems odd. And they don’t call the police or the army on him, they just focus on wanting his son to have a chance to go to school. There’s a late in the film reveal that it was her father who helped protect his family, may have died doing it. It may be a tad too much of a coincidence, but then it is also about them both coming from the same place of violence and confusion, and both being raised to react with love instead of hate, so it makes sense that their parents would have known each other.

The underlying beauty of the film is in this lovely remote floating school house and the adorable children who come to it. But scattered on top is lots of fun drama. His first weekend off, Zaheer goes back to Srinagar to surprise his girlfriend, discovers she is seeing someone else, confronts the guy, and has a big fight scene with him (despite a broken arm). That’s fun! And then at her wedding, Pranutan overhears a pregnant woman confronting the groom about it being his baby, and dramatically sweets out in full bridal gear. That’s fun too! And there’s a storm and a dramatic break-up and all kinds of good stuff to keep you on your toes.

What I like most is the turn away from violence. It’s in every little detail of the characters and the story. For instance, the trauma our hero is recovering from is when a little boy crossed the border chasing sheep, Zaheer yelled at him to stop but it was too late, and he triggered a landmine. Zaheer didn’t shoot him for wrongfully crossing the border, or chase him because he was trying to arrest him, or anything stupid like that. Or the really stupid option, that the kid actually was a threat and Zaheer didn’t realize it. Straight through, Zaheer’s instinct was to try to protect the child, the only reason he was chasing him was because he wanted to protect him. And this is treated as normal and obvious and human. The film never even considers those darker possibilities.

That’s why the final sequence is so alarming. This one student has a different kind of a father. He is silent, he carries his ax in a disturbing way, his children and wife seem nervous around him. But there is no violence shown, and it isn’t even clear what is happening in that house that is so disturbing. Does he not want his son to go to school because he is a Kashmiri separatist? Or does he not want his son to go to school because he wants to keep control of his family? Or does he not want it because he thinks there is no future in education and would rather his family maintain their traditional profession? The film never definitively answers that question, because it doesn’t really matter. This is an angry scared father who has no hope that his son could have a better life than he could. And that alone is terrifying, because this child matters, just like all children matter. It doesn’t have to be about anything bigger than that. And after having watched the rest of the film, we the audience know that Zaheer is willing to risk his life so this child can go to school. This is the moment when anything can happen.

But, thank goodness, nothing bad happens after all! This film gets a happy ending, and more importantly a hopeful ending. The father is talked down, and goes away, leaving his children to go to the school like they wanted to. These kids can go to school, the couple can get together, and peace will happen, one small step at a time.

8 thoughts on “Sunday ReRun: Notebook, the Most Delightful Romance of 2019

  1. I saw this film yesterday! You’ve mentioned it so many times in all your decade round-ups and I had the time so I did it! I really liked it, but the whole thing with her father protecting his house and her maybe helping him with math as a child seemed wrong. Also, I didn’t realize that he wasn’t Muslim. Which made the whole forced leaving and Uncle caring for the house thing a little confusing. His Uncle was Muslim, I thought he was Muslim too! I was just talking to a friend last night about My Name is Khan and how people in the U.S. don’t assume a particular name definitively translates into a religious belief, and how different our 250 year experiment is from the majority of the world. We talked about Dream Girl and how it taught me Indian Muslim stereotypes, but apparently it didn’t teach me enough to actually recognize when two would-be-lovers came from different religions, a pretty significant plot point. Yes, that was a pretty big fail on my part.

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    • Yeah, “uncle” is confusing. “Uncle”, “Aunt”, “Brother” and “Sister” are tricky ones because the same words can be used for “real” relatives and “honorary” relatives and you have to figure out from context clues which one it is. This is my biggest challenge with southern films, I still guess wrong a lot of the time with those.

      This movie is fun because it comes close to tropes but skates away from them. There is a consistent thing in Hindi film of the “good” Muslim, like Pranutan’s father here who takes a stand and protects the Hindus. If their backstory had been a bigger deal, or if he had been the only Muslim we saw, it could have been that. But in this case it was an entirely Muslim world with one token Hindu (our hero). And not everyone was good and not everyone was bad, they were just people in their own ways. Our heroine in particular doesn’t follow the usual tropes for a “Muslim” heroine, she doesn’t have a repressive father, her fiance is a love match not arranged (she doesn’t love-love him, but they are dating and stuff, it’s not just a stranger forced on her), she isn’t super religious, all those good things. Heck, even the interreligious romance doesn’t follow those tropes! The religion is specifically NOT an issue, that’s why the father friendship backstory. They have the same background down to their parents being friends, they want the same things in life, they think the same way, it’s all a perfect match and religion is just a tiny silly thing the plot can pretty much ignore. So actually, no wonder you didn’t realize they were different religions! The film purposefully set out to make that NOT an issue!

      Anyway, I am so glad you saw it! It’s so ridiculously swooningly romantic, I love it.

      On Sun, Jan 19, 2020 at 12:13 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I read she will be in a movie with Aparshakti Khurana; “A quirky comedy from the heartland of India, it touches upon a topic that is considered embarrassing for most people in India and will showcase the same in a hilariously entertaining manner”. Looks like Aparshakti stole a script from his brother’s drawer 😉
        I hope Pranutan has a good role, even if this kind of movies are more about the hero and his problems.

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        • I hope she will too! Or at the very least makes connections that will help her keep working.

          On Sun, Jan 19, 2020 at 4:58 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. This was sweet. I liked the two leads a lot. To me, the back story came out of nowhere (and not really sure it’s necessary?) – besides which I understood it the opposite, that their fathers were on opposing sides, but they were united on rejecting the blood and soil cycle of violence.
    Also that Zaheer was chasing the kid, though he tried to stop him from going into the mined area. So both he and Nutan had darker shades to their characters and reasons to turn away from violence.

    The other hard part for me was that wow, he was really a terrible teacher! Though that is an actual plot point so I give the movie credit. That moment when Imran fails his exam because Zaheer taught him wrong math…oof, that hurt my heart. Nutan is an actual good teacher, though, in a way a lot of movies don’t get right, I was so glad she was coming back to take over. The end scene was a great climax. Loved the message, loved that it was the child’s choice, loved that Zaheer’s plea to Imran was in the name of everything he *and* Nutan taught him, it wasn’t a male savior narrative. And yes, the landscape was spectacular.

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    • This is the only movie I can think of that makes a plot point of “the inspirational teacher can’t actually teach them the things they need to learn and has to go back to teacher’s college”. I loved it! And it also had a real world “something is better than nothing” explanation for why the untrained teacher should teach. He may have been unqualified, but at least he kept the school open and gave the kids something.

      On Tue, Jan 21, 2020 at 12:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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