(An edited version was published in The New Indian Express)
The word class is carelessly thrown around several times in Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium. His wife wants to climb the behemoth that exists in every society – from Chandni Chowk to Vasant Vihar. She wanted this long before he stitched his way into her life. As a teenager, Raj Batra (Irrfan) was Mita’s (Saba Qamar) tailor. That’s how they met. He produced imitations of clothes from fashion magazines and of famous fashion designers. Cut to 15 years later, he is still doing that. But not in the hole-in-a-wall local tailoring shop but in a sprawling garment store that he owns, in Chandni Chowk. He drives a BMW. They leave Chandni Chowk in a cart and arrive at Vasant Vihar in their BMW. Makes sense. My first – very urban – thought at seeing the BMW was about his parking woes. Mita tells him, almost as soon as they move homes, how he has moved out of Chandni Chowk but Chandni Chowk hasn’t moved out of him. All because he made the dance floor his own for a Sukhbir song, in front of South Delhi residents. Apparently, their opulence doesn’t allow them to let their hair down.
Mita is in dogged pursuit of admission in one of the most prestigious schools of Delhi for her daughter. Raj is reluctantly complicit because he’s never said no to her all his life. Mita reminded me of my own primary school in early 90s when schools and parents insisted on great handwriting and English speaking skills more than anything else. According to Hindi Medium, nothing has changed. It has only gotten worse, with consultants and business advancing MBAs replacing well-meaning individuals. There is a school before school – not pre-school as we know it – where children are trained in every discipline to gain admission into one of these institutions. Tillotama Shome plays one such consultant. Shome has her share of fun in the kind of role that she’s probably never played before – something pitched at the high and loud, only bordering on satire. That is also one of the issues with Hindi Medium because the way characters and their roles are pitched, it looks like Raj, Mita and the consultant belong in different kind of films.
The heightened dramatics is a staple of Hindi Medium with the plot concerns not based on logic or reality. They just exist to service Chaudhary’s message heavy film. Have Raj and Mita thought about what happens once they secure admission through RTE (Right To Education) and attend school events or meet teachers, as the posh residents of South Delhi? What about the eventuality that no matter how much effort they take, all of it depends on a lottery? They haven’t thought this through and neither has Chaudhary, who shares script credit with Zeenat Lakhani. It has every cliche associated with message heavy films – the characters drawn as black and white, the pitching of the performances, the manipulative writing and even the long monologue that Raj delivers in front of a snooty crowd that transforms into an enlightened society by the end of it. Mita, Raj and their daughter pretend to be poor to take advantage of the RTE quota. Hindi Medium is supposed to make us laugh and think but this is one of the most cunning of its leads’ schemes. It makes you squirm in your seat, thinking about the lengths to which one can be pushed. Chaudhary even manages to extract the most brilliant conceit here, a shoe-is-on-the-other-foot moment with Deepak Dobriyal (Shyam Prakash as the couple’s new neighbor and fellow RTE applicant) in fine form. The Batras themselves are members of the nouveau riche, intent upon impressing their Vasant Vihar neighbors and getting into their cliques. So, when they stumble during an out of ordinary inspection visit of RTE applicants by a school official, Shyam has to play along with them, informing the official that they are newly poor. They are still learning the ways of the downtrodden. It is a stunning scene anchored by Dobriyal, Khan and Qamar.
In a film that is better on paper than on screen, it is the performances that hold your hand. Khan has played these comical deadpan straight shooter roles for more than a decade now that it has become a stereotype. But what’s there to complain when literally anything he does with his face in these roles is laughter inducing? It would be lovely to see more of Saba Qamar. She’s great at concealing most of the awkwardness associated with being Mita – the Chandni Chowk girl wearing Dior and rubbing shoulders with the elite that she desperately wants to be part of – while managing to show how a tinge of it has escaped her. Qamar should be seen in bigger and better films. Hopefully for her and her performances, and not because some filmmaker had to donate to “army welfare” after being arm twisted by a political party, for casting a Pakistani actress.