“Hichki”… A gritty subject gets diluted into a mild, well-performed diversion

Posted on March 26, 2018

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Spoilers ahead…

When we first see Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji), in Hichki, she’s waiting to interview for the position of a teacher. She’s shaking her feet and tapping her pen furiously on her folder of certificates. When she’s called in, more signs of nervousness appear. She makes hiccuping sounds. She keeps hitting the underside of her jaw with a clenched fist. The interviewers, who presumably haven’t seen the film’s trailers, ask Naina what seems to be the problem. She smiles and says she’s afflicted with the neurological condition called Tourette Syndrome. Her application is rejected, and while walking away, she’s asked how she is going to teach students. She smiles again, and points out that before she came in, none of these people knew about Tourette’s. “If I can teach something to the principal and a few teachers, why not students?”

That’s the bright, breezy tone adopted by this film, directed by Sidharth P Malhotra, who specialises in wholesomely middlebrow adaptations of wholesomely middlebrow films. We Are Family was based on Stepmom. Hichki is based on the book (or maybe the film based on it), Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had. It’s as edgy as a circle. Not that films have to be edgy, but given Rani’s Black, where her differently abled character had to be broken like a horse, I felt the Tourette’s might take some taming. But these parts are the film’s weakest. There’s a father (Sachin Pilgaonkar) who walked away – but his presence is too peripheral to add any depth. Besides, by the time we meet Naina, she’s already come to terms with her condition, and she already has her coping mechanisms. At least in her mind, she’s already tamed Tourette’s.

The condition, therefore, turns into a metaphor for something “lacking” in you, something that makes you different, something that needs to be conquered. When Naina finally lands a job, it’s at a posh school, teaching Class 9F. (9A contains the toppers, 9F the failures — the film is subtle like that.) This class consists of students from the nearby slum, and that’s their version of Tourette’s, that they don’t belong. They don’t see any hope in their future, and this fear comes disguised in rebellion. Whenever the camera slips into their neighbourhood, we see gleaming skyscrapers in the distance and the sea in between. It’s a gulf these kids don’t expect to cross. In a wryly funny song, they mock themselves: “Madam ji, go easy / Sab wifi, hum 3G.”

But if Naina felt the same way, there would be no movie. So she sets about teaching these kids in ways they understand. Very conveniently, every kid possesses a trait that lends itself to a subject (the girl who knows how to cook bhindi learns that there’s chemistry involved in this, and so forth) — and Hichki turns into To Sir, With Love, from Dangerous Minds, who have Music of the Heart, right down to the lone holdout student who finally realises he’d better fall in line, too. There’s zero surprise, unless you count the fact that a nasty 9A boy is balanced out by a sweet-as-sugar 9A girl — so we know rich people aren’t all evil. I’ve rarely seen a film with so many conflict points (a child abandoned by her father, class issues) go down so easy. The subject is granola. The film feels like a glazed doughnut.

There’s one passage that’s especially troubling. When Naina (who’s upper middle-class) visits the slum, she sees a life very different from hers. There’s a mad scramble to get water from a lorry. The rooms are tiny. The kids have jobs (in the cycle repair shop, for instance). The stretch feels like a guided tour. Does Naina think about this? Does she feel something? Does it change her? Does it make her feel something about her life of privilege, where birthdays automatically mean dinner at an expensive restaurant? Naina gets no inner life (no love interest), and that makes her a curious protagonist. I liked that she wasn’t saddled with a boyfriend for the heck of it, but I wondered if the absence of one was something she’d taken for granted, given her condition.

But Hichki isn’t a bad film — it’s a mild, pleasant diversion, something that’s going to make a lot of people think they saw something “good” and “worthwhile.” Rani, as always, is wonderful. Her instincts are impeccable — she knows exactly when to go big, when to dial it down. The 9F kids are terrifically cast. (I teared up at the end when we meet them again as grown-ups.) And a smirking Neeraj Kabi, whose “villainy” is established in his very first scene (he practically twirls a moustache and goes muahahah), gets to play out the thesis that there are no bad students, only bad teachers. That’s not a bad thought to go along with your buttered popcorn.

Copyright ©2018 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