26 May 2017

Lessons in Laughter

The astute Hindi Medium makes school admissions the locale for a bitterly funny look at our misplaced priorities.

Hindi Medium isn’t really about Hindi. Or even, in the end, about English. It’s about class and entitlement, corruption and the hope of change. Because it's juggling so many narratives, it can sometimes seem like it’s spreading itself thin. But one idea that emerges from Saket Chaudhry’s film is that we live in a society in which everyone is faking it. It’s the sort of thought that could easily lend itself to banal cross-class alliances: the auto driver and his sawaari, for instance, can agree on it without perturbing their senses of self. But Chaudhry makes clear that not everyone doing the faking is equal – and so some fakery is much more justified than others. It is this clarity that lifts the film, from meaningless cynical humour to a tragicomedy with an edge.

At the centre of Chaudhry’s narrative is a somewhat unlikely couple: Irrfan Khan hitting it out of the park as Raj Batra, a self-made Chandni Chowk shop-owner with the gift of the gab but no English , and a warmly effective Saba Qamar as his wife Mita, a Chandni Chowk belle who knows just enough English to know what doors it won’t open for her. Or more importantly, for her daughter, Piya. 

What sets the plot in motion is Mita’s desire to get little Piya admitted into one of Delhi’s top five schools. She and her husband may have totted up more than enough money, the film suggests, but cultural capital is much harder to garner. And as in most cities, it can only be acquired in certain neighbourhoods. Mita persuades Raj that the only way to get Piya’s school admissions sorted is to inhabit the right circles. He agrees, and they make a hilariously tearful departure from Chandni Chowk —one friendly neighbour giving them kulchas while another threatens to rob Raj of his prized Jataayu role in the local Ramlila.

But the more desperately you pound at the doors, the more tightly they stay closed. The Batras can rent a house in Vasant Vihar, but they can’t feel at home. The film manages to paint a warm and funny portrait of the family’s struggles, successfully positioning them as victims of a milieu in which their favourite songs are as subject to scrutiny as their hors d’oeuvres – and showing up the cultural bankruptcy of a country whose elite bars its children from speaking their mother tongue because it isn’t posh enough.

The next subplot involves a perfectly-cast Tilottama Shome as a posh ‘consultant’ who can help people like the Batras prepare themselves for the gruelling process of school interviews. Because, of course, it’s not just little Piya who has to pass the test – it’s her parents. The film moves a little bit into caricature here, with one child categorising the dinosaurs by food habits, while another greets Shome in several European languages. But the burden of Chaudhry’s piece is clear: if schools, which ought to be our channels of social and educational transformation, spend all their time screening out the ‘riffraff’, then how can existing hierarchies ever be broken down?

It is in the second half, though, that the film really enters tricky terrain. Having failed the top school interviews in the General category, Raj decides to fake the documents to get admission in the quota for underprivileged children. Expecting a visit from a school inspector, they move house once again, this time to a two-room tenement in a neighbourhood called Bharat Nagar. From pretending to be posher than they are, they must now pretend to be poorer than they can imagine.

Wringing comedy out of the everyday life of poverty is no easy thing. Chaudhry begins with a set of reversals. Unsure of how to deal with the enthusiastic welcome they receive, the Batras are now the ones who appear standoffish to their neighbours. The minimal English they use with each other is more than anyone in their newly-adopted street can speak. It gets harder to watch when it comes to the lack of water, the dengue-carrying mosquitos, the long queues for everything, and the battles that inevitably break out over scarce resources. The Batras only have to suffer these things for a month — and we, the multiplex audience, for barely two hours — but this world is all too real. So when Deepak Dobriyal (as local guardian angel Shyam) delivers his caustic lines about poverty — “
Gareebi mein jeena ek kalaa hai.” or “Hum khandaani gareeb hain. Saat janmon se gareeb.”— they really hit home.

As the film enters more and more dramatic terrain, it occasionally falters into the cliche. Amrita Singh as the school principal is saddled with an inexplicable backstory, and Irrfan’s climactic speechifying could really have been sharper. Perhaps Chaudhry could have learnt the lesson he makes such an ironic pivot of his story: “Less is more”. But this is still a film with a lot of heart, and a lot of laughter.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 21 May 2017.

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