Monday, May 14, 2018

Hichki: Review

After Hindi Medium, Sidharth P Malhotra’s Hichki is the second film in 10 months whose narrative hinges on the Right to Education Act. This isn’t surprising—after all, our films have always felt they have the right to educate. Hichki’s opening minutes are a quick lesson in Tourette’s, a condition Naina (Rani Mukerji) has had since childhood. “Do you know anything about Tourette syndrome?” she asks the panel interviewing her for a teaching job (they haven’t). Not the most elegant screenwriting solution, and there are more lessons to come. We’re whisked into a flashback; young Naina is called on stage by her school principal after her vocal tics disrupt a play. Instead of reprimanding her as we assume he will, he says, “You come to school to learn, but today we have learnt something from you.”

After several rejections, Naina is hired as a teacher at St Notker’s, an elite Mumbai high school. This is only partly due to her qualifications, the principal admits. They’re in urgent need of a teacher to take charge of class 9F, a class with 14 “difficult” students from the nearby slum. Disadvantaged students, idealistic teacher: if you’ve seen To Sir, With Love or Dangerous Minds or Short Term 12, you’ll have a fair idea where this is headed. Thirty minutes or so of teacher trying to win class over, confrontation, tipping point, then a final sprint towards discovering of potential.

This might sound like a harsh assessment of an earnest film, but Hichki often comes across as parachute filmmaking—dropping in on a problem just long enough to prick the viewer’s conscience and make them feel like they’re watching something meaningful, but avoiding any sort of meaningful engagement. When no one turns up for a parent-teacher meeting, Naina goes to her students’ houses. The sequence that follows is a smooth assuaging of liberal guilt—not one parent voices the uncomfortable but believable opinion that they’d rather have their child out of school and earning.

As a contrast to 9F, screenwriters Malhotra, Anckur Chaudhry, Ambar Hadap and Ganesh Pandit populate section 9A with posh, fresh-faced students who look down on their economically disadvantaged peers (whether 9B, C, D and E are on a decreasing scale of nastiness is never addressed). The writers also give Naina an opposite number, the supercilious Wadia (Neeraj Kabi), who pops up every few scenes to mock her unconventional teaching techniques (boiled eggs to explain parabolas, basketballs for potential energy) and employ a series of classist euphemisms for her charges (he drops all pretence at the end, calling them “municipal trash”).

Cartoonish though he is, more than a few readers who’ve attended private school will remember teachers like Wadia—instinctively, unthinkingly class-conscious. If they’re being honest, some will also see glimpses of themselves in the students of 9A. Just because Hichki is guileless and corny doesn’t mean it isn’t knocking on the right door. But Hindi message films aren’t as simplistic as they used to be; just compare the detailed environments and relatively complex characters of Nil Battey Sannata or Secret Superstar with the generic slum and archetypes in this film.

The actors playing the students are wonderful, turning even the rank sentimentality of the later scenes into something watchable. Had the film been less interested in the un-illuminating struggle between Naina and her critical father, we might have been able to get to know the 14 better. But this is ultimately a film about Naina—her students, her solutions, her journey, her hichkis.

This review appeared in Mint. 

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