It was so with Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans, where to me, the highlight was the letters Gopal wrote from the USA to his younger brother in India. And it was so with the photocopied page of a foreign magazine that I had in my possession, listing signage across the world, ostensibly meant to guide the English-speaking traveller, but instead had me doubling up with laughter. And I know I’m not alone, and I hope to God I’m not snobbish. So, what’s it about gaffes in the English language that tickle our funny bones so effortlessly? Do we, at some level, ride a wave of superiority complex, even as we surf on the cackles? Or is it the language itself – that, any slip in usage sounds atrociously funny?
This piece does not even begin to purport to answer these questions. Neither does the movie that raised them in the first place. Director Saket Chaudhary and co-writer Zeenat Lakhani flash a light on the obsessive-compulsive order that parents set for themselves and their children when it comes to education. And how, scaling the strata of the society is a must-have for their offsprings, which means that children must now also deal with – apart from the brachiating effort that is our schooling – acceptance amongst the Swiss-holidayers.
And Hindi Medium succeeds admirably well in the first half, as the director, donning a satirical garb, introduces you to Raj Batra (Irrfan Khan) and Mita (Saba Qamar) and their daughter Piya (Dishita Sehgal). The couple’s nouveau riche, he the owner of BFS (no, it’s not what you think, even if it’s in Chandni Chowk), a fashion store, and she from a higher societal echelon, but now adjusted to life in the sneeze-and-your-neighbor-catches-a-cold neighborhood. But, it’s not long before her aspirations aspirate into one whoosh of troubling change for Raj. She wants Piya to learn in the top school in Delhi, the Delhi Grammar School, admission to which, as the hapless Raj discovers in a scene (where the fantastic Rajesh Sharma makes a cameo), one has more chances of breaking bread with the PM, than breaking into this school of elites. But, first things first – Mita forces Raj to buy a house in the tony Vasant Vihar, so that they and Piya can mingle in the rarefied strata, and then ease Piya into the school for haughties. But as they rapidly discover in their new life, having dough isn’t enough, especially if you pronounce the former as duff. In other words, not knowing English can be the fatal headwind in their flight of fancy society.
The movie sparkles as it takes you through the travails of Raj and Mita, trying to cope with the straining and training of appearing for nursery interviews, egged on by their snooty consultant – a superbly polished act by Tillotama Shome – even while attempting to spout upper-class English. All of this is supreme fun, as the strong-headed Mita and the flustered Raj try their best to wrap their fumbling fingers around this slippery goal. In a hilarious scene, Raj even lands up outside the Delhi Grammar School’s principal, played with effective dourness by Amrita Singh, to bribe her.
All of this, of course, fails, and the hapless couple has to fall back on a seemingly waggish recourse – use the legal loopholes in The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act. This is where the script stretches itself thin – too thin, as the satire treads into semi-farce, semi-preachy mode. The couple decide to shift into a dinghy neighborhood, posing as below-the-poverty line folks and make it via the 25% seats reserved for the poor. So far, so good. Especially given that, they now have the poor Shyam Prasad (Deepak Dobriyal) and his wife, Tulsi (Swati Das), and their son as neighbors. This is also where the director’s vision goes awry – he very neatly and conveniently packages two layers of the society – the have-too-muchs and the have-nots – in a kooky attempt, that’d give even two-layered cookies a complex. For, here on, it’s all black and white in director Chaudhury’s world – the poor are a throwback to the chawl-dwellers of the 70s movies – all golden-hearted Samaritans, while the rich are all oppressive, snooty, snobbish, despicable forms. It’s not to say that these roles don’t exist in the assigned strata, but are all rich people necessarily bawd and beautiful? (Vasant Vihar? Stinking rich? Heck, in all probability, yeah.) Are all unfortunate folks scrounging for bread the I’ll-bite-the-bullet-for-you-mate heroes? This simplistic and short-cut look very quickly and effectively robs the movies off its sheen and chuckles. Not that it ought to have been a laugh riot, but the path of segue between satire to social drama is a fraught one, and this movie doesn’t quite make the cut during this journey.
If, say, the director wanted to keep it zingy, he could’ve kept the journey all about the parents beating the system to get their child into the much wanted and vaunted school, despite their failings in the equally doffed to Queen’s language. Or, once Piya gets into the school, her struggles therein and as a consequence, her parents’ struggle to break the Hindi-medium mould. But, in trying to bring in the misuse and pitfalls of the RTE Act, and how it’s not actually helping the layer it was supposed to, he quite forgets the title of his movie, and makes it more an Ameer Student Gareeb Student gambit. Which is why, by the time Hindi Medium makes it way to the heavy-on-sanctimony denouement – and I was so disappointed in the sole character who applauds Raj Batra’s (dull) speech, for that move stripped the character of all their core beliefs and values in a single move – you’re left with a feeling that’s more tedium than Hindi.
Which is not to say that the movie is without merit. The director very effectively zones in on and brings into relief the absolute blood-sucking and merciless business that education has become. When Tillotama Shome’s character sniffs that she’s booked by parents during the first trimester, it’s as funny as it is scary – for parents, it’s truly a nightmare on the education street. And then there’s the superb cast that raises Hindi Medium a notch higher on the blackboard. As the down-but-not-out couple slumming it out for their child, Deepak Dobriyal and Swati Das are top notch. The former, especially, all hunched and weary, beaten and battered, delivers a heart-aching performance, even when he’s made to behave like a potential candidate for the halo. The very talented Sanjay Suri and Neha Dhupia, are unfortunately wasted in roles that are as nutritious as high-falutin rolls. Saba Qamar crackles in her demanding, wannabe act, not letting even repetitive dialogues flag her energy.
But it is Irrfan Khan who makes Hindi Medium a truly worthwhile experience. In a role where his character struggles to stay afloat in a pool of snobbery and viciousness, even while trying to maintain his links with his past – note the scene where he has a ball watching his favorite reptilian Hindi serial – he wins you over hands down. He’s fabulous in the aforementioned scene where he’s in the waiting room, wanting to bribe the principal. Or, the first time when his family lands up in South Delhi, he gets out of the car and greets a haughty-looking couple passing by. They see through him, even as they glide away. Khan’s reaction is simply precious, a mixture of bravado and a sinking feeling. And if that’s not a mirror to what parents appearing for school interviews feel like, what is?
Hindi Medium is rated U (Unrestricted Public Exhibition). You may simply decide to school your child at home.
Director Saket Chaudhary Running Time 2h 13 min
Writers Saket Chaudhary, Zeenat Lakhani
Stars Irrfan Khan, Saba Qamar, Amrita Singh, Deepak Dobriyal, Swati Das
Genres Drama, Comedy
Watch the trailer of Hindi Medium here: