Hindi Medium (2017): Of Language and Lies, Clichés and Contentions

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There are no spoilers in this review. It isn’t the kind of film that would be spoilt by spilling plot details. The complexity (and ambiguity) of the plot, coupled with the omnipresent humour makes a spoiler impossible, which is a partial explanation of why Hindi Medium fell short of an exemplary film that could leave a lasting mark on the cinematic matrix.

It’s a story that takes a well-off family (a prolific businessman, a homemaker wife, and their little daughter) out of their Chandi Chowk ancestral home aka their complacent lives, to a posh Vasant Vihar colony in South Delhi, in a bid to be able to provide their daughter with the best education in an English-medium school. This, of course, turns out to be a thorough challenge to their comfort zone. But in a city where money cannot buy class, desperate times call for desperate actions.

You can count as many bollywood clichés as you like, and none would compare to the hyperbole with which the whole plot starts. They go straight from the waist-wide lanes of old Delhi into the vast expanse of Vasant Vihar, while their purpose would have easily been served by shifting to what is the majority of Delhi: the in-between, the moderate, the balanced. But this exaggerated transition is important, for it hints that you’ll need to let go of practical possibilities and logic more than once if you are to sit through the rest of the film.

It doesn’t help that such decisions are led by Mita, the mother in the family who envisages the worst everytime something goes wrong. “Agar tum jail chale gaye to main Pia ko kya bataungi? Ke tum Tihar jail me ho? Vo depression me aa gayi to? Usne drugs lene shuru kar diye to?” She launches into this monologue everytime something goes awry, even in the most minuscule way. She chides Raj, her husband, to do things her way because “iski spelling bhi aati hai?”on more occasions than I could count. This is the husband-wife dynamic they share throughout and is the underlying foundation for the many jokes that follow.

Hindi Medium reveals the dark side of nursery admissions in that it spotlights the rigmarole through the lens of the parents’ nightmare. It touches upon the commercialization of education, the elitism in education, the desperation to fit it, the airs of the elite neighbourhood, the privileges of ancestral wealth, the humanity in poverty, the loopholes in the system, and also by way of extension, the frail attempts at redemption.

It doesn’t focus on solving one problem, and that’s fine because there’s humor to make up for it. But it’s hard to overlook how little thought went into deciding the ending, assumed to be a heroic monologue that will change the direction of things and force an ethical awakening in the protagonists. 

The actors — Irrfan as the humble husband, Saba as the domineering wife, Amrita Singh as the scheming school principal, Deepak Dobriyal as the experienced poor, Neha Dhupia and Sanjay Suri as the haughty elite couple, Tillotama Shome as the astute admission consultant, along with the others — are the real winners here. Each one delivers an impeccable performance, as against everything else mediocre.

Their performances embellish the plot with authenticity and can only be measured in superlatives.

The other bright side is the humor that all these struggles, escapades and often dumb stunts are painted in, because that brings out the best in the worst circumstances. The clichés are wide and many, but the depiction of poverty is laced with some real dark humor. The poor in Bharat Nagar slums are found explaining how poverty is an art. How it can’t be learnt in a day and that it’s more complicated than an emphatic yes/no. That their poverty is ancestral and how they’ve practised it over generations. How when you’re poor, your aspirations don’t work the way they should: you’re always toying with your life to make something out of it, if you end up surviving.

The climax, a Bollywood favorite — a speech by the leading actor expressing remorse/doling out clarification/summarising his journey — is so symbolic of the entire film. Loose ends, lack of focus and an almost amoebic lack of attention to the larger outcome.

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It works as an exposé on the admission system: donations, political interventions, elitist hurdles, underhand jugaads, careers built on scams. It also is a great commentary on the society: empathy amid poverty is easier to exercise than solidarity amid wealth.

But it lacks the fabric to make it a fierce piece of work. And clearly, it isn’t the actors who are lacking. It’s a great film with some of the finest actors. But it’s hard to not compare it to those nondescript listicles that tell us what we already know. Lists that crack us up with gifs and memes to get us through; well articulated but premised on a shaky foundation.

Hindi Medium is mostly worth watching for the actors because the audience should do for them what the script didn’t. Give them their due!

By Kritika Narula

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