Hindi Medium schools us on class and the business of education
Stand up your hand (literally haath upar karo), if you have ever been guilty of translating local phrases into angrezi. Hindi Medium explores this idea and the divisiveness of language through rite of passage for many parents – nursery entrance exams.
Hindi Medium directed by Saket Chaudhary (Pyar ke Side Effects, Shaadi ke Side Effects) and co-written with Zeenat Lakhani, takes the heavily class-laden issue of education and puts it to the Bollywood test – matlab, it presents a checklist of ideas and manages to tick mark all of them with the ability of teacher making sure her students can answer all the questions in the finals, but any retention of knowledge is strictly optional.
Irrfan Khan takes to his Raj Batra – a self-chartered path from tailor’s assistant to proud owner of a fashion empire specializing in original designer fakes, with the ease and charm of a salesman who knows his audience. There is a lot in his performance we have seen before and come to expect as well, and he doesn’t disappoint. A happy go-lucky guy who managed to charm his to-be wife and now seeks to constantly please her.
His wife Mita, played by Saba Qamar who has graced our TV screens with stellar performances most recently in Mein Sitara, Besharam and even on the silver screen in Lahore se Aage, makes a strong Bollywood debut. Mita is a determined upwardly mobile Chandni Chowk se Vasant Vihar helicopter (rather, helmet) mom plotting and planning her child, Pia’s future. That is, when she isn’t struck by (recurring) paranoid visions of Pia’s life going off track by enrolling her in a government-run Hindi medium school and ending up doing drugs.
Many Bollywood films love to play with the trope of the elite English classes versus the paindu regional masses. From Amitabh Bachchan’s famous “English is a very funny language” speech to the more recent English-Vinglish, which was a personal journey of self-discovery, and now to Hindi Medium, Bollywood’s legacy with English has a prickly past and is often seen as a key to a better future
Both Qamar and Khan are well-matched and effortless as two parents jumping through many hoops to ensure the best future for their child. Many scenes such as lining up in long queues for admission forms at ungodly hours, the wringing interviews that parents go through to secure a seat for their child and finally making the leap and ‘pretending to be poor’ make for a lot of laughable situations and the film for the most part plays to the gallery rather faithfully.
The story however, falls into easy dichotomies – the rich mojito-drinking Vasant Vihar snooty types laugh at you while the poor Bharat Nagar slum dwellers laugh with you. Some scenes also go on for too long and could have benefitted from a sharper editing eye.
The premise of Raj and Mita’s relationship played up in cute moments that triumph or really, gloss over their obvious class differences could have been explored a tad more instead of having Mita merely roll her eyes at everything Raj did. Raj and Mita also seem a largely entitled self-centered couple totally missing a moral compass and their explanation of I did it for my child, holds little water.
Though Khan gets the more meatier lines in the story as well as final ‘Aha’ moment, the person who steals the show is Shyam Prasad played by character actor Deepak Dobriyal. His naturalistic performance, body language, clothing, persona and certified Delhi speech breathes relatability and grace rarely afforded to ‘side’ characters.
He and his wife (Swati Das) serve as a guide to Raj and Mita in the ways of the noveau poor that hits satirical territory and for once, you can’t guess his character’s motivations even if he exists merely as a foil to awaken Raj’s morality.
Overall, Hindi Medium is a pleasant watchable film with fun cameos by Mallika Dua, Neha Dupia, Sanjay Suri, Tilottama Shome and a razor-sharp Amrita Singh that spotlights the business of education. The mention of India’s Right to Education Act which aims to provide opportunities for India’s poor to avail education facilities alongside the rich is examined with some nuance about how these poor children don’t quite fit in. A comparison with the government school and its very basic needs is contrasted with extra-curricular expectations of their richer counterparts. Still, this checks off the ‘issues’ that need to be highlighted but feels like a virtual check list rather than any meaningful exploration.
Within the spectrum of the romanticized poor people, snobbish rich people and the self-absorbed middle class, Hindi Medium seeks educate us on the value of being proud of where we come from with a jolt of awakening our social consciousness.
While Hindi Medium gets full marks for presenting a new idea, as well as for stellar performances it is chock-a-block full of ideas that aren’t fleshed out. Just as Raj’s speech got no standing ovation, Hindi Medium could have benefitted from its own adage of less is more.
An edited version first appeared here.