Saturday, May 30, 2020

Angrezi Medium: Review

The first half represents change, the second half tradition. A couple of recent Hindi films have tried to upend traditional family structures, only to reach for the comfort of normality as the narrative winds down. Jawaani Jaaneman starts to judge its footloose forty-something hero by the end. Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan spends its second half trying to win over Gajraj Rao’s sulky homophobe. We see this in Angrezi Medium as well, though the moral pressure here is so subtle as to make the person it’s applied on think it’s her idea.

At the start of Homi Adajania’s film, we see Champak (Irrfan, back after a break for cancer treatment), an Udaipur mithai-seller, casually put a stop to his bride’s studies after marriage. The wife dies, and Champak swears that he’ll give their only daughter the best education possible. Tarika (Radhika Madan) grows up obsessed with the idea of studying abroad. And so Champak, though unwilling to squarely deal with the thought that she’ll leave him one day, starts putting together the money needed for her to go to college in London.

Though the comedy is sometimes too broad for even Irrfan and Deepak Dobriyal (playing Champak’s brother) to salvage, the first half has a raucous underdog energy. But once the trio leave for England, the film acquires a slapdash quality that suggests either a lack of time or screenwriting resolve. The brothers’ plan is laughable: team up with a childhood acquaintance they barely know and somehow make a large amount of money in a very short period of time, all the while carrying fake passports, in a country where they don’t speak the language. There’s the odd slapstick winner – Dobriyal twirling his arm before introducing himself as Saqlain Mushtaq is hilarious – but the writers are mostly clutching at straws.

The film also seems to realise after the interval that it lacks dramatic heft. And so, out of nowhere, we get Dimple Kapadia and Kareena Kapoor Khan, playing mother and daughter, facing off in an emotionally charged scene. The problem is, these are characters we’ve spent no time with, barely know anything about. How are we supposed to suddenly be invested in their damaged lives? The film doesn’t really care either; it just needs someone for Champak to be able to displace his fatherly guilt onto, since he and Tarika have a falling-out over her getting a job and saying she’ll pay him back for the money he’s spending on her fees.

The Tarika-Champak spat is half-hearted at best, and not great for the film, given Irrfan and Madan’s chemistry. With her wheedling voice, which seems to trail off towards the end of sentences, Madan feeds off Irrfan’s liveliness. There’s a scene where she comes home after drinking and manages to confuse her father into thinking that he’s drunk – which on paper must have seemed ridiculous, but the two of them make it work. That they spend the second half largely apart is unfortunate, though Irrfan at least has in Dobriyal a sparring partner in the same weight category, whereas Madan is given bland scenes with assorted college students.

At one point, Champak, hurt that Tarika doesn’t want him to stay with her, asks his daughter if he seems like a frog in the well, a square. Later, he turns her request for a little space – not an unusual demand from a teen – into an elaborate drama of sacrifice on his part. The upshot of all this I won’t reveal, but the film ends up with the suggestion that Tarika is indebted – not just emotionally but in practical ways – to Champak for educating her, for allowing her to follow her dream.

A film about a free and loving father-daughter relationship becomes a closed circuit. It’s that old cliché about setting someone free if you love them and seeing if they come back. But does Champak ever really set Tarika free?

This review appeared in Mint. It was to be Irrfan's last film released before his death.

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