In the India-Bharat that we live in, and especially in New Delhi aka Nai Dilli, there are many games people play when trying to assess your worth, but whichever way you slice or dice it, much of it comes down to that biggest social signifier: English or Ingliss?
What is your snob-o-meter? You may be chauffeur-driven in a fancy BMW, flash your Chanel bag, sport a pair of the latest Versace shades, and so on, but if you can’t speak the Queen’s language as she is spoke, there go your chances to be invited to the really swish parties in town. And for your offspring to crack the most difficult exam ever: to get into the best private schools, where English is both the medium, and the message.
Hindi Medium comes at an apt time, and shines a light on the near-insurmountable barrier that language, the knowing of one, the not knowing of another, can be. As we see Chandni Chowk merchant Raj Batra and his wife Mita struggle to get their daughter into the best schools, where the parents have to pass the entrance to the nursery test first before anything else, we see the horror stories we read and see playing out in front of us.
Raj (Irrfan Khan) is a self-made man, and quite happy where he is. Mita (Saba Qamar), whom he calls Mithu, is the one who wants social mobility for her daughter. So they move from the crowded galis of the old city to a swanky home in South Delhi, but that journey is not enough. The proximity to the fancy school may have been addressed, but the not-knowing-angrezi puts them on another planet.
The film opens well, and both Irrfan and Pakistani actress Saba, make you feel the anxiety and the anguish of parents in search of that very elusive holy grail: an English-medium school that will take their children to the pinnacle of success.
But it dips, and becomes much less sure-footed when the family is forced to don the ‘gareebi’ garb ( to get access to the seats that private schools have to keep aside for the EWS, economically weaker section). This well-off family’s interactions with those who live in the slummy parts of the Capital, over–run by rats and stinky toilets and sarkaari schools are an uneasy, forced act: while mining sympathy, some situations turn insensitive and unconvincing.
It is tricky territory, this looking at `ameeri’ and `gareebi’, English-speaking snobs and Hindi medium worker drones, the haves and have-nots, and the film becomes shaky and laboured in these portions. Both the snobby how-to-get-into-nursery-schools coach (Tillotama Shome), who is busy making money off desperate parents, as well as the dodgy principal (Amrita Singh) of a school that lets ‘these poor children’ in are more caricature than real. Which is a pity, because with some depth, these characters could have lent the film much-needed nuance: Singh, who can be altogether wonderful, comes off confused and under-utilised.
And that’s really the nub of the problem here. The flat writing which doesn’t quite know whose side to take — show up the parents desperate for English-medium schooling, or point fingers at those who are inept gatekeepers of these bastions, or both, by sentimentalizing those who live below the poverty line as `good’ and `noble’ — turns this film much less than it could have been. The characters, including the one played by the very talented Deepak Dobriyal, become stock. And the climax, consisting of a sanctimonious speech, lets the film down.
Saba Qamar’s hyper mom who is happy to be a ‘chalta-phirta’ brand factory in order to get her well-shod foot in the door, gets some moments, but is made to repeat a few lines over and over again, and gets tiresome.
As usual, it’s the marvelous Irrfan who keeps us watching. His is a fine, well-judged performance, which rises above the lines. At one point, we see him cracking up while watching his favourite florid TV serial: in that moment, ‘Hindi Medium’ is glorious, because the actor catches what he’s meant to do, meant to be, gloriously.
What happened to that tone in the rest of the film?