“Gareebi mein jeena ek kalaa hai.”
When I stepped into the theatre hoping for a badass film that challenged the English hegemony, and put my internalised English-speaking snobbery and forgotten vernacular histories on fire– that dialogue is one thing I didn’t expect to hear. At least not from the character of a man living in poverty, trying to support his family and admit his son into a reputed school.
Now, before I discuss further, I want to acknowledge where I come from. I was born in an upper caste, middle class Hindu family, perfectly oblivious to the troubles my parents must have endured to give me a primary school kickstart in life. My lived experience has been studded with advantages and comfort; it is possible that some of my critique is an effect of my position in society. While you read this, feel free to point out parts of my analysis that you find problematic or hypocritical. Because when I watched the trailer, and decided to be invested in the film— what three hours, psychological-emotional trust and all—I wanted these things to be shaken.
Back to the film. It starts off with a long unnecessary backstory of this dude working at a tailor’s shop falling for a female customer who wants to get a specific design stitched for herself. She gets thwarted (of course) by the supposedly respectable middle-aged male tailor for requesting a back cut that’s “too deep”, and her mother is quick to pour her anxieties over her (of course). So the dude, the younger Irrfan Khan, offers to secretly make it for her (of course) and then spends a song sequence trailing behind her (read: stalking). We leap to fifteen years after this incident, and they’re married (…of cou—you get the drift).
I was already visibly annoyed by the off-note, right at the beginning, when they decided it was cool to add another sequence in Irrfan’s now massive apparel venture, casually fatshaming two women customers. The ‘ridiculous, mildly delusional Punjabi Delhiite women’. (Irrfan Khan swoops in and fancies them with lies— of course.)
No plot development so far. We’re introduced to the dilemma, Saba Qamar makes one of the film’s rare smart, astonishing and genuine statements about how English is not just a language, but a class— and soon, things seem to be turning upward. They move to a richer colony wanting to fit in, and with convincing performances, hurl sharp critical jabs at the ‘sophisticated elite’. All this while dancing to classic “ohohoho” at a ‘high culture’ party. The film recognises how circular this process is— of belonging to a certain class, having access to a good English education, and sustaining themselves in that class— through their failure. At some places, it even highlights questions about what it means for Saba’s character Mita, to aspire to such ‘sophistication’, and what might inform her of these ideas. For instance, the scenes where she tries to socialise with other mothers, and gets put down for it, are telling, even in all their lack of subtlety. The subplot of hiring an admissions consultant, the heavy competition among toddlers, undertones of paternalism, and the madness— were all dealt with well.
However, somewhere around halfway through the film, it crashes down like a Jenga pile whose bottom block had slipped off. Royally.
The film’s writers decide to make the protagonists, in their struggle towards admission for their daughter at Delhi Grammar School, “pretend to be poor” after filing into the RTE quota. Uh…ok. Now, I understand that Bollywood films have this constant itch to be over the top, wacky and outrageous in their satire. That’s how we roll. And this development was all those things… well, everything except satire. While the RTE move highlights the system’s corrupt nature, and the predicament of those who lack power, the protagonists shifting to a smaller locality of limited means, with their Pizzas and Rs. 20 mineral water, made me lose them altogether.
The film’s dialogue seemed to periodically balance things out, with the Pizza discovery scene mentioned above, and the fleeting realisations that struck the misled couple. Other than that, there was a palpable lack of reflection/self-reflection in the making of that whole space. Full of sentimentalisation of poverty, the film coloured them as ultra-noble to comfort the arses and farces of the status quo beneficiaries.
In his new dwelling, Irrfan Khan makes a friend in Deepak Dobriyal. He decides to “train” Irrfan Khan, who he understands as a newbie to the ‘poor way of life’, in how to live with less. He produces a train of punchlines about being a “khaandaani gareeb”. He risks his life by getting in front of a moving car, to draw money out of the driver to pay for Irrfan’s daughter’s admission. People might be stretched to take severe actions that I’m not aware of—but out of nowhere, in the middle of Irrfan drawing money out of his bank account—this whole scene looked, to me, like a patronising comforter. Like an instrument to make Irrfan realise what he’s doing to these virtuous, Good Samaritans. Like their dues hinged on their character, and so did the acknowledgment of their conditions. As I sat in an auditorium full of laughter. I cringed, not the kind I came looking for.
Well, this goes on. Parallelly, Irrfan and Deepak Dobriyal bond along with their families, and Saba Qamar keeps making that annoying “humaari beti depression mein jaake drugs lena shuru kar degi” comment, and they end up unintentionally stealing Deepak’s son’s seat for their daughter. Now that the mission is over, they pack their bags and sense of guilt, and head to their air-conditioned home. Well, of course everything else melts away but their massive conscience—and this is the part that confirmed my suspicions, even the ones I’d been offering the benefit of doubt for—what do they decide to do?
Charity. They go to the school Dobriyal’s son now attends, and decide to (first, sponsor one kid’s education, and then they see the kids do talented stuff—because of course, only then,) furnish the whole school and provide for all the kids with benches, stationery and… wait for it, English books. It is understandable why this would be a source of pride, and even the expected course of action for the school, kids, parents and the protagonists. Hindi Medium was always about getting into that “class” and how difficult that is, and not an impossible, heroic abandonment of these standards, that neither the middle class nor the underprivileged can afford. But it was a drastic tangent. What had this three hour rollercoaster become?
Wow let us steal a kid’s seat because of our predicament but then we’ll do this token thing, and spend our money on these kids because wow redemption totally. Is this a level of satire that I haven’t unlocked or are they freaking serious? I found myself asking this question a lot, because between the unthoughtful scripting and massive praise the film had garnered, my discomfort lay sandwiched. To those who I’m sure will call this fiction, I refuse to separate the story from its politics. To those who will call it realistic, I have tried to acknowledge the parts I consider the film had the right to feature. For me, a film has two jobs. To present what is, and to peddle what must be. That is, in seeing what is, I also want to be moved by the self-consciousness of the film (if not its characters. I know for a fact that a film can have sexist and racist characters, or be a period-drama and treat these ills delicately. It’s not easy, and I don’t confess I can ever make anything that balanced, but I definitely know when I see it, and when I don’t.) Hindi Medium, for me, slipped. Even the characters in the film that were supposed to portray a particular living condition, were so clearly written by people who knew nothing of it. And they decided to go with their “omg he said gareeb hahaha” humour.
The film felt confused, and it unsettled me. The applause for Hindi Medium is roaring, but I do not understand. At all. And as a friend pointed out, how was Hindi supposed to do the job anyway? Hashtag Hindi imposition.
Anyway, to complete the plot, there’s a climactic battle against the corrupt Principal, who herself was an underprivileged child (character motivation is A1). Irrfan Khan defies his wife, becomes the hero (because of course, her worries that we were all rooting for are suddenly irrational because penis), and gets the public school students to perform for the rich parents’ crowd (what…???). He then slips in one of those non-impactfully melodramatic speeches (and in the process, lifts his accountability significantly by going—Oh I didn’t care so much about this English school thing, I did all of this because my wife cared.” Typical penis.)
It is not like the film didn’t have potential. Rewind a few scenes, The Principal makes a wonderfully astute comment about how she felt discriminated as the only kid from a lower class in a school full of kids who had perfectly ironed uniforms and branded stationery. They seemed to be onto something for a moment there. Perhaps a realisation that it needs more than a benevolent seat to bridge gaps and open the doors to equality and prosperity, and that the onus is on everybody sans the saviour complex—but they literally do nothing with that insight. Nothing.
What was most disappointing about Hindi Medium for me is that lost potential. Of laughing at our English-speaking English-thinking egoes more fully. Of realising through a well-told story what we are part of. The film, however, ends with Irrfan and Saba’s daughter joining the reconstructed public school, and… well, a happily ever after. We, of course, go back to our houses, switch on the air-conditioner, and read our high-culture stuff without care or thought because we’ll always have charity, amirite?