“Hindi Medium”… A satire that’s an easy, fun watch, but also facile and problematic

Posted on June 8, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

In Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium, Irrfan Khan plays Raj Batra, a garment shop owner in Chandni Chowk, a location that’s Bollywood-speak for “the boonies.”  In an early scene, he chances upon an assistant on the verge of alienating a couple of fussy customers, a mother and her soon-to-be-married daughter. Raj steps in, takes over. He sweet-talks the mother and daughter, orders them a falooda. He even slips into a lehenga to prove a point about its suitability. It’s all played very broadly, but the point is made, that Raj knows this place, this language, these people. And when his wife (Meeta, played by Saba Qamar in a sitcommy style; every expression is an exclamation point) insists they move to Vasant Vihar, he’s a fish out of water.

Meeta shares some genetic material with the Sridevi character from Judaai. She says she wants to move so that their daughter, Piya (Dishita Sehgal), can study in a top school, but she seems a bit of a social climber herself. After they move, she wants Raj to call her “honey,” and a party she throws for the rich people she hopes to cultivate as friends has caviar on the menu. Neha Dhupia has fun playing one of these snooty upper-class women as though auditioning for the part of one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. Meanwhile, Raj breaks into a Punjabi song-and-dance, and Meeta is embarrassed. It’s not hard to see where Saba Qamar is getting her acting cues from. Saket Chaudhary himself directs in a broad, sitcommy style.

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The crux of the matter is this: Meeta does not want Piya to study in a government school. “Is desh mein angrezi zubaan nahin class hai,” she tells Raj, that English isn’t just a language in this country, but connotes class. A posh school, she thinks, will give Piya those advantages she never had. (Raj didn’t have them either, but then he doesn’t care.) And so we slip into a Nil Battey Sannata kind of movie, where a parent’s dreams are foisted on the child. And like that film, this one too takes a problematically facile look at very real issues. Hindi Medium just wants to exist at a feel-good level, with a big Hirani-esque speech at the end making everything okay. Looking at Raj and Meeta, another title springs to mind: 2 Idiots.

Still, parts of the film are very enjoyable, mainly due to the actors. It’s a blast watching Tillotama Shome finally lay down the weight of the world and slip into the catty part of a “consultant,” helping parents get their kids admitted in upscale schools. (“People make appointments with me during the first trimester,” she tells a bewildered Raj and Meeta.) Amrita Singh plays the headmistress of one these schools. She has a good scene where she shows how humiliations can harden you. Irrfan Khan is good in a role that doesn’t require much heavy lifting, and Deepak Dobriyal steals the film as Shyam, a very poor and very decent man. The actor oozes humanity from every pore, and yet the character doesn’t become a saint.

The portions where Raj and Meeta move into Shyam’s neighbourhood were, for me, the most troubling. (They have to pretend to be poor, so that Piya can get an admission in a quota.) Suddenly, the satire becomes too serious, the issues too important, the resolutions too simplistic. But I loved the conceit that the Batras were considered nouveau riche in Vasant Vihar, and now they’re nouveau poor. (Shyam, on the other hand, claims that he is a khandaani gareeb. He has been poor for generations.) Raj and Meeta had to learn how to act rich. Now, they have to learn how to act poor.

The film’s best part is the opening stretch, where a young Raj, who is a tailor’s assistant, helps a young Meeta get the dress she wants. Like the scene in the garment store, here too we have a mother and daughter. Meeta says she wants a low-cut back. Her mother disapproves. The tailor tut-tuts. Meeta says the design will get spoilt if the back isn’t cut low. The tailor says, “Ados pados ke designs ko bhi dekhna padta hai.” (We have to consider the neighbours too.) Raj says, secretly, that he’ll help Meeta.

While watching the scene I just thought how beautifully it was pulled off, but as the film went on I realised that this scene was an encapsulation of everything that follows: that Raj will continue to cater to Meeta’s whims, that what-neighbours-say will continue to be a consideration, that Raj and Meeta will continue to fool others in order to get their way. Hindi Medium is an easy, fun watch, but it might have become something great had the rest of the movie matched up to the magic in this scene.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi