English may have glued together India’s administrators and other elites, but it has also allowed a class divide between richer and poorer Indians. Why schooling does not make children from lower socio-economic strata proficient in English is a major story of systemic failure.
Few bridges exist across the language-class divide. People on the two sides don’t read the same newspapers, nor do they watch the same TV channels. Their children go to different schools, and in most states, the textbooks they study are also different. Yet, despite acting as a social watershed, English also provides an axis for class contest and mobility. Explaining the various roles English plays in our diverse, unequal, society has proved a challenge for linguists, many of whom avoid the core issue.
Where scholars fear to tread, film makers don’t mind running in. In a period when education seems to be on the backburner of public policy, a Bollywood film about matters as complicated as the urban class divide, language proficiency and admission procedures for nursery, has struck a chord with the popular imagination. By any count, Hindi Medium is unusual. It has no songs, no sex, and it focuses on socio-cultural distance — between rich and poor, and among the rich, between those with status and the rest.
It sounds like a documentary for a course on the sociology of education, rather than family entertainment. The film is an example of educational cinema, not just because it is educative, but also because it shows how to look at education. It presents a young couple who want to buy a good start for their little child. They realise that India’s system of education offers little scope for mid-course correction. You fly direct, either to everlasting prosperity, or to perdition.
The couple featured in Hindi Medium want their daughter admitted to the nursery class of Delhi’s top-end school. Their search for a nursery seat pushes them into doing things they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing otherwise.
They first shift to a posh colony in order to qualify for the neighourhood quota. When that does not work, they shift to a slum in order to qualify for the EWS (Economically Weaker Sections) quota. These adventures create hilarious situations and dialogues, but also expose the system of education and its claim to serve lofty national goals.
The exposure covers three different facets of the system: Its chicanery, its professional hollowness and the corruption inside it. The chicanery resides in making ordinary
people and government functionaries forget what the Right to Education (RTE) Act is all about. This historic law has now got reduced in urban India to the 25 per cent quota for the poor in English-medium private schools. The RTE’s real agenda was to ensure compulsory education of equitable quality for all children.
As the only law on children’s education ever enacted by Parliament, the RTE assigned a special responsibility to the Centre. This responsibility has now been almost fully outsourced to the states. Many of them have limited capacity — and hardly any interest in reforming schools.
The RTE is now perceived to be the law that enables a few lucky ones in the vast EWS category to get their children enrolled in private schools. Hindi Medium’s plot reaches its crisis when the rich hero and heroine successfully cheat a school into granting an EWS quota seat. They realise that they have also cheated a genuinely poor man who had helped them. This man refers to the EWS seat as a “right” of the poor. The fact is that EWS seats are distributed through lottery — which means they are governed by luck, not right.
Hindi Medium also brings out the corruption involved in the distribution of these EWS seats. Local politicians and touts actively lure non-EWS people into obtaining the required documents. The film also shows how cynical consultants find business in training both children and parents to imbibe appropriate class behaviour in order to look genuine.
Finally, the film exposes how, as a country, we have lost all sense of purpose in providing nursery education. The basic principles of early childhood care and education (ECCE) have been sacrificed at the altar of commercialisation. The RTE applies only from age six onwards — childhood before six remains free to be exploited. Education during the ages three to six years has proved a goldmine because it is unregulated.
There are no norms for teacher salaries, teaching equipment or space. Most government schools don’t have a nursery class. In contrast, private schools now admit only at the nursery level. No wonder the admission of their little daughter to a high-end nursery becomes a life-and-death question for the young couple in Hindi Medium. Their circuitous search educates the audience about the structural defects of the system.
But the search ends in vintage Bollywood-style. The morally awakened hero delivers a public speech, suggesting the obvious solution for the medium divide. Evoking patriotic emotion, he says that we all are Hindi-medium people who also need English. He points to the need to improve the standard of English in government schools. The audience is asked to work for improving government schools.
It is nice that Bollywood continues to keep the hope alive that education can serve as a social flyover. For now, this hope appears to be entirely unwarranted. Government schools have become ghettos of the poor, and governments are no longer keen to invest more financial or professional resources. On the other hand, private schools are increasing wasteful expenditure. They are comfortably placed to force parents to cough up money for every new frill and gadget.
Between these schools and the ones run by the government, there is just one narrow bridge: The EWS quota. The crowd awaiting entry to this bridge is growing bigger every summer.