Using a physical disorder as the fulcrum for a movie plot is a fraught step, but one that is done rather gracefully in the perennially safe-mode Hichki (Hiccup). Directed by Siddharth P Malhotra (he who previously helmed the lugubriously syrupy We Are Family), who also co-wrote the story with Ankush Chaudhry, basing it on Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had by Brad Cohen, this movie isn’t going to make it the best of list for 2018, for sure – but that’s no reason not to watch it. But, to quote that great musical teacher, Let’s start at the very beginning.
Hichki tells the story of Naina Mathur played by Rani Mukerji – when did she decide to swallow up the ‘h’ in her surname and donate it to the title of this movie? (Malayala Manorama, could we please have a bi-annual Namebook of the updated names and spellings of Indian actors ? It’s getting hard to keep track of the numerology-inspired alphabetic chess tournaments they participate in.) Naina’s only ambition in life is to chalk out her career as a teacher, and yet, as the opening interview sequence shows, despite her best, most sincere shot at it, the panel’s questions pivot to her vocal and movement tics. She doesn’t land the job, but they get a crash course in Tourette Syndrome, as do you. Undaunted, and supported at home by her brother, Vinay (an affable Hussain Dalal) who’s an upcoming restaurateur and mother Sudha (Supriya Pilgaonkar, quietly effective), she can take whatever life throws at her in stride, except when her runaway father, Prabhakar (Sachin Pilgaonkar) turns up for social dos and at the dinner table. That’s a thread that the director saves for later to tie up eventually, as you’d expect.
Actually, there’s nothing unexpected about Hichki about its plot or its story-telling. So it is that Naina gets a job offer from St. Notker’s High School – as the name suggests, it’s all hoity-toity, unlike let’s say, Patkar’s. (Notker is a nice touch, by the way, especially because of the condition by which the saint is generally referred to.) In the discussion in the principal’s room – played with the usual graceful aplomb that Shivkumar Subramaniam brings to the screen – Naina’s told that her coming onboard is more an act of desperation on the management’s side than her abilities and capabilities. And that emergent situation is brought on by Class F, a segmented and segregated section, thanks to the Right to Education Act, that brings in a group of slum-dwelling children, whose raison d’être in the school is that Act and their poverty. They’ve successfully managed to rid the classroom of their earlier teachers, and exams are 4 months away. Naina isn’t someone who scarifies easily, wearing her condition as smoothly as one would their gesture of ruffling their hair, picking their nose, or tugging their ear. But even she realizes that she’s got an unenviable task ahead of her, as she faces her rough-and-tumble students. Welcome to sir, without love, the live poetless society, and sounds that aren’t music, Naina ma’am. You, on the other hand, needn’t make your breath wait if you’ve read Braithwaite’s book or seen Poitier’s magnificent portrayal onscreen.
The academia story is just that – all predictable, safe, and offers nothing new. There’s touches of Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikandar too, with the hint of an upper-class romance with the downright scruffy – only here, it’s done knowingly. Add to all this the naysayer in the staff-room, Professor Wadia (Neeraj Kabi) who shakes his head and offers sarcasm-dripped advice whenever he can to the vim-packed Naina, who nicks it with all the dignity she can muster. You know how this story’s going to play out, just as sure that you know some corn from your tub will spill onto the carpet below you when you first dip your fingers into it. If you’re looking for any surprise, any at all, here’s the spoiler – there’s none.
And yet, what makes this as-predictable-as my-history-textbooks-fare grippingly watchable is the splendid cast. Here’s Vikram Gokhale in a cameo that makes you want him more onscreen, in good health, and in action. There’s the entire section F-for-fantastic kids who add such unexpected depth and angst to their rather shallow and trope-sketched characterizations. Harsh Mayar as the aptly named Aatish is a firework of an act that’s simmering forever on a short fuse; Benjamin Yangal is heart-meltingly likeable as Ashwin; Sparsh Khanchandani is an instant winner in her dedicated turn as Oru; there’s more in the class, and they’re all top-class. Neeraj Kabi as the suave, polished professor is superb, the actor bringing such classy sheen and masterful sureness to his role. And it is his character who shakes his head when the principal brings Naina onboard, and says sotto voce, “Bad choice.”
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, when it comes to the actor portraying Naina. Rani Mukerji, and she, and she alone, earns this review its title – for it is truly a brave act that’s unputdownable, unforgettable, and a tour de force all the way. In portraying the neuropsychiatric disorder, she isn’t garnering any sympathy, nor does she appear to be making any effort at all. She simply lives it, lives with it, and gives it the screen space it demands, and yet never makes it look like a prosthetic add-on or a quirk to her persona. She is Naina, and Naina has Tourette Syndrome, but that does not define Naina nor does it defy her.
Just the first time do you feel the shock of her vocal tic and her slapping her wrist under her chin to control it; after that, every tic conveys an emotion of its own, also fingering the trigger, be it an act of defiance, or emotional stress – an act so breathtakingly good, any other actor would be found wanting even delivering dialogues so brilliantly. Watch her in the scene where finally she seems to give in, distressed, slapping herself to stop her tics acting up, biting into her hand, her knees knocking together, all imploding and exploding at the same time. Or, in the end, when she’s walking down the stairs, and wags her finger at a student – that gesture is so darned natural, you’re left wondering if the actor ever was a teacher herself.
Finally, to all the production houses – don’t do to Rani Mukerji what you did to Sridevi and what you’re doing to Madhuri Dixit, Govinda, and heck, even Urmila Matondkar and Sushmita Sen. Terrific actors all, the one who left us unexpectedly was just coming into her masterful space – no, I don’t find her 80s Hindi cinema output inspiring much. The rest are all here, with us. Get them some strong scripts and make life in a cinema hall an elevating experience. They wait for it, as we do. Life’s next hiccup could be well around the corner, so move it, please.
Hichki is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition)
Director Siddharth P Malhotra Running Time 1h 56 min
Writers Siddharth P Malhotra, Ankur Chaudhry
Stars Rani Mukerji, Neeraj Kabi, Supriya Pilgaonkar
Genres Comedy, Drama
Watch the trailer of Hichki here: