Hindi Medium movie review: Irrfan, Saba's laugh-a-minute thinkfest survives its populist ending
Director: Saket Chaudhary
Class differences, language divides, superiority complexes, the almost killing tension parents experience at school admission time and the snob value of a south Delhi address – they all come together in director Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium, a laugh-a-minute thinkfest starring Irrfan Khan and popular Pakistani actress Saba Qamar. The film is about a wealthy resident of Chandni Chowk who is uncomfortable with English and his wife who wants their daughter to be one with the ‘it’ crowd.
If you know the geography and sociology of Delhi, you would be aware that Chandni Chowk signifies the old rich and traditionalism, while Vasant Vihar stands for a more modern, English-speaking, westernised, moneyed lot. Not all residents of these localities fit these stereotypes, but by and large this is what they symbolise on the socio-economic map of the Capital.
What then does it take to join the VV club? Would shifting house suffice? It is not that easy, as Mita (played by Qamar) and her husband Raj (Khan) find out.
Raj owns an expensive boutique in the Old City, drives a BMW and lives in a spacious house with Mita and their child Pia. Delhi’s most prestigious English medium school is not accessible to them despite their bank balance. Mita’s background is marginally more uppity than his – this is evident from her comparative sophistication and a brush with a former classmate in a well-heeled residential area. She is willing to push her doting spouse to any lengths and to go to any lengths herself to get Pia into that hallowed hall of learning. If this means moving out of Chandni Chowk, investing lakhs in new family wardrobes and a consultant, then so be it.
Raj is more easygoing and less interested in social circles that do not want him. Still, he goes along with Mita’s schemes even when they involve ridiculous extremes, and indulges in some corruption of his own, to fulfill her dream for their daughter. Why? Because he is smitten by his well-meaning even if misguided wife – as smitten as he has been since she first entered his out-moded father’s darzi ka dukaan in Chandni Chowk 15 years back.
This being the plotline, it would have been tempting to resort to clichés that formulaic Hindi films have often favoured: the poor are all saints, the rich are all evil, good folk are flawless, the bad beyond redemption. Or the ones being peddled by the present political establishment in India: all Hindi bhaashis are rooted and humble children of the soil, all English speakers are the snooty “Lutyens crowd”. The reason why Hindi Medium works for the most part is because for the most part the screenplay by Zeenat Lakhani and Saket Chaudhary steers clear of cheap populism and strikes a balance between being critical of a certain elite yet not tarring everyone with the same brush: that consultant, for instance, is superficial and harsh, but that classmate (Sanjay Suri) is kind.
Sure there are exaggerations, but they are amusing, sometimes even irritating, without being offensive, so let’s put them down to cinematic licence.
Even Raj and Mita’s encounter with poverty avoids over-statement: they learn their lessons not just through the wonderfully generous, impoverished couple Shyamprakash and Tulsi (played by Deepak Dobriyal and Swati Das), but through the dog-eat-dog challenges of slum living.
This is the film’s strength. And until the final 20 minutes, Hindi Medium is unrelentingly funny and simultaneously thought-provoking. Then comes that climax including a speech by Raj, which plays to the gallery so transparently and in so many ways, that it feels like an afterthought forcibly inserted into the storyline as a safety net in case anyone considers it too subtle. The contrast here with the overall tone almost manages to kill the film. Almost.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
Raj’s sudden decision to speak extensively in broken English, although his listeners in that scene would obviously understand Hindi well since they are a Delhi crowd; the sweeping statement on language snobbery in that sermon that is a departure from the restraint of the rest of the film – these are among the many needless populist choices in Hindi Medium’s ending. Suddenly then Raj and Mita’s equation feels like a downplayed version of that whole achha-pati-rebels-against-wife-who-leads-him-astray cliché. And c’moooooon, did the only pure soul in that entire pretentious school have to be the Hindi teacher and none else? The one thing more overt than that would have been picking a Sanskrit teacher instead.
Not that the narrative is untroubled until then. The beginning is problematic, when it fast forwards to the present from Raj and Mita’s first meeting as teenagers (played by Delzad Hiwale and Sanjana Sanghi). The present dwells so long on extraneous characters that it takes a while to grasp the connection between those teens and the protagonists.
(Spoiler alert ends)
In terms of performances, Deepak Dobriyal and Swati Das are scene-stealers although they enter the picture very late in the storyline. The child actors in the roles of their son and the lead couple’s daughter – Angshuman Nandi and Dishita Sehgal – are sweet and natural. And Amrita Singh is competent as Principal Lodha.
The one person given the short end of the writing stick is Tillotama Shome as the consultant who trains families for the school admission process. She is a complete, undisguised stereotype.
Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar have nice chemistry between them. He is utterly delightful, even in that moment of deliberate hamming when he breaks down on leaving Chandni Chowk. Though his accent is somewhat inconsistent, his body language is perfect, and those eyes flit seemingly effortlessly between mischief, affection for his wife and pangs of conscience.
Qamar is a beauty. Between her and Fawad Khan, they might convince Hindi film audiences that Pakistan has cornered a majority share of the world’s hotness. Though her character is often hyper, her acting never is – that is a fine line to tread, and she pulls it off.
As with a large percentage of Bollywood, the casting is not age appropriate though. The text on the screen after the flashback says “15 years later”, a clear indication that Raj and Mita are in their mid 30s. Khan is already 50 and it feels silly that a need was felt to give us a pointed indication that his character is so much younger than the actor’s real age.
Saket Chaudhary’s first two films as director were Pyaar ke Side Effects (2006) and Shaadi ke Side Effects (2014). His shot at pyaar was entertaining and breezy though not earth-shatteringly brilliant. His look at shaadi held out the promise of being an intelligent he-said-she-said take on marriage but forgot the woman’s viewpoint early on. Despite its follies, what we get in Hindi Medium is vastly evolved storytelling from the filmmaker.
Among other things, I enjoyed the use of music in this film, both Amar Mohile’s background score and the songs, original and remixed. Ik Jindari (sung by Taniskaa Sanghvi and chorus, music: Sachin-Jigar, lyrics: Kumaar), has a pleasant tune, happens to be crucial to the narrative and captures the essense of the film with these simple words filmed on a bunch of financially backward schoolchildren: “Suraj jaise chamkenge / Dekhe hain saadi akhiyan ne / Ae sapne ambraan de / Boond boond jodenge pal pal / Door door veh jaayenge phir naal samundran de / Asi ethhe khade / Hai jaana pare / Na kam humko tol” (We will shine like the sun / We have dreamt of the skies / We will collect drops one by one / And gather an ocean in which we will flow away / We are standing here / We must go to the other side / Do not underestimate us.)
On the face of it, Hindi Medium is an indictment of the education system, but it is more than that. It is also a comment on the hierarchies among the wealthy, a nuance that commercial Hindi cinema has rarely captured. Besides, it is so enjoyable until that exasperating finale, that it would be unfair to write it off because of the lasting impact of the lapses in the conclusion.
Hindi Medium makes a point – several points, in fact – by being simple and straightforward yet not simplistic. The film’s achievement is that it tells us things we already know yet forces us to think about them, and has lots of fun while doing so.