Cast: Irrfan Khan, Saba Qamar, Deepak Dobriyal, Amrita Singh, Swati Das
Director: Saket Chaudhary
Genre: Drama film/Comedy
Duration: 2h 30m
Full marks – well, almost – for Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium for intent, effort and thematic novelty. It’s asquint take on the scramble for pre-primary admissions that elite, metropolitan English-medium schools witness every year is likely to strike an instant chord with parents who’ve faced, or are due to face, the unseemly rigmarole. Taken in its entirety, however, the film scores much less.
This Irrfan Khan starrer is a middling social satire, an awkward blend of situational comedy and an earnest expose on the downsides of ersatz pecking-order mobility. It employs broad strokes that hinge on contrived, bereft-of-nuance situations.
The first half is fine, even somewhat droll, riding as it does on the restrained comic talent of Irrfan (as Raj Batra, a well-off Old Delhi clothier) and Saba Qamar (as his wife Meeta, an uptight mother prone to bouts of overreaction). The film doesn’t take itself all that seriously as long as the ambitious Delhi couple, looking for an English medium public school for their out-of-sorts daughter, scour the city for the magic key that could liberate them from their Chandni Chowk trappings.
But something snaps in the second half. Hindi Medium strays into laboured sanctimony. The spontaneous humour of the early passages goes missing and is replaced with a hint of mush. Even as the two lead actors continue to sparkle, affectation seeps into the film’s soul.
The couple’s acts of despair are occasionally amusing. Deciding that they’ve had enough of being lesser mortals, they resolve to give their daughter Pia top-of-the-line English medium education come what may. They relocate to upscale Vasant Vihar go school hunting. Their misguided methods trigger a chain of events that throw their own life, and that of a low income group couple they befriend, into disarray.
Hindi Medium (written by Zeenat Lakhani and Chaudhary) misses the mark on one crucial count. It fails to achieve the kind of beyond-the-obvious acuity that the subject demands. As a consequence, it falls prey to its own facile construct, made worse by the introduction of an inconsistently etched public school principal (Amrita Singh).
The film’s plot rests on the simplistic stereotyping of all affluent, Angrezi-speaking South Delhi types as insensitive, snooty and status conscious. Poverty, on the other hand, is romanticized through the altruistic acts of a righteous, self-effacing factory worker (Deepak Dobriyal), who, in his own words, is a “shuddh gareeb, saat pushto se gareeb”. This unflappable man’s capacity to take personal setbacks in his stride is an eye-opener for Raj Batra.
There is, of course, no problem in the whole wide world – certainly not if it’s a matter as small as putting the public school-government school debate at rest for good – that cannot be tackled with the aid of a convenient, no-holds-barred harangue delivered with all the flair in Irrfan Khan’s repertoire.
Hindi Medium presents the rich-poor, English-Hindi, Chandni Chowk-Vasant Vihar and India-Bharat divides in overly superficial terms, working with character types rather than true-to-life beings. Meeta Batra, unhappy with her social and educational standing, speaks a smattering of English and ridicules her husband’s lack of fluency in the nation’s power language. ‘Mata ka bulawa aaya hai’ is Raj Batra’s mobile ringtone and ‘Tare gin gin yaad vich teri main toh jaaga raata nu’ is the sort of music he sways to. His wife is embarrassed no end.
Hindi Medium sees the problems that plague the student intake system primarily through the eyes of parents. The voices of children, the most important stakeholders, are given the short shrift. In one scene, the Batras’ daughter is asked by the admission consultant (Tillotama Shome, superb) to recite a nursery rhyme. The little girl is too shy to respond.
Cut to the activity area of the all-knowing lady’s thriving grooming centre. The diffident child sees two bright rich kids, on cue, demonstrate their exceptional knowledge, talent and language skills. The girl promptly launches into “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” You are what you are… that is how the conversation between the consultant and the father trails off. The film needed more such moments to drive home the ways in which children learn to deal with the world, no matter how harsh or confusing it might be.
Hindi Medium skirts around the impact of peer pressure on children and treats the young ones at the centre of the action rather perfunctorily. In another scene, Pia’s parents visit a government school and are impressed by the skills of the children they are introduced to by a principal who draws their attention to the crumbling building and its rundown classrooms and toilets. But none of this becomes an integral part of the larger design of the film.
The urgent issue that it addresses and the actors that it deploys to highlight it surely deserved a more complex and layered treatment. If Hindi Medium remains watchable all the same, it is only because it is difficult not to marvel at the spark that Irrfan adds to the film. He receives rock-solid support not just from Saba Qamar – far and away the most poised of all the Pakistani actresses who’ve been in Hindi films in recent years – but also the first-rate Deepak Dobriyal and the magnificently measured Tillotama Shome. The combined force of the acting talent on show isn’t enough, however, to rid the film of its qualitative variability.
Verdict: It isn’t possible to completely dislike Hindi Medium. So, ignore its hiccups and watch it for the relevance of the questions it poses and the remarkable quality of the acting.