Synopsis – Hichki presents a positive and inspiring story about a woman who turns her biggest weakness into her biggest strength.
My Take – Yes, I do believe in the fact that a good teacher can actually make a difference for a lifetime. For me growing up in an Indian society and being a pupil as a part of the Indian education syllabus till high school, I never witnessed a teacher who was willing to go the extra mile to guide anyone for their future endeavors and not just follow the herd of kids who would rather use their brain power to orally learn the whole textbook, all in order to stay in the teacher’s good will. While education throughout the world have taken up certain change in gears, our Indian teachers still continue to keep the typical mindset of becoming an engineer, doctor or lawyer while pursuing education or just end up at the tutor’s door step to make sure you at least pass. While some do owe a part of their success to their teachers as a person or an experience, I personally would rather see that happening on screen. While Bollywood has tackled teaching methods and suggested ways to improve the standards in educational institutions, many times before, this is the second film (Hindi Medium) in the last few months whose narrative hinges on the Right to Education Act, which isn’t surprising, as Bollywood have always felt they have the right to educate. Here, director Siddharth P Malhotra, brings back Rani Mukerji into the limelight following a four year hiatus and takes us down a memory lane while making us realize the importance of teachers who taught with their hearts, not their minds, also while dealing with the theme of class struggle and a student-teacher relationship. Sure, this film, based on Brad Cohen’s memoir Front of the Class: How Tourette syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had (which was adapted into a film in 2008), is no Dead Poet’s Society, but this is a largely engaging film that, despite the hiccups in its writing journey, manages to hit the mark.
The story follows Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji), a charming M.S. degree holder who has been working as a part-time animator, yet wishes to be a full time teacher. However, her various applications for teaching positions over five years have been unsuccessful, with the primary reason being her speech impediment, known as Tourette Syndrome, a disorder characterized by vocal and motor tics, in her case a tendency to make certain loud involuntary sounds and swing her head to the side while touching her hand to her chin, most especially when she is agitated. While she has lived with since childhood, and made peace with it in adulthood, Naina, school administrators refuse to give her an opportunity, that is until the principal (Shiv Subramaniam) of St Notker, an elite Mumbai based school, decides to hire her as a alma mater teacher for Class 9F, the most chaotic and hostile class of the school, which consists of 14 cocky, disinterested, rebellious and disrespectful students from a nearby slum, who were inducted into the school system under the Right to Education mandate. With everything falling in place like she always wanted, Naina must not only convince the school board of her abilities, but must also help the girls and boys of Class 9F overcome their own pessimism and the prejudice they face from some of the richer students and an experienced yet conservative and snooty educator, Walia (Neeraj Kabi), and guide them past the prejudice they direct at her. Unlike other films that deal with sensitive topics like neurological or psychological setbacks, this one sets a light tone right from the beginning, as the opening sequence establishes her condition (Tourette Syndrome) and shows no signs of emotional manipulation or sympathy. Of course they are sanctimonious speeches, a rival teacher/student who would do everything they can do sabotage Naina’s efforts, a superficial look at slums and its inhabitants, and some feel-good shots of children learning about physics by playing basketball. In a sense this is a predictable film, as we know from the moment Naina Mathur enters that classroom, how the story will turn out: that the kids will resist her, they will next be won over by her sincerity, and they will finally become her allies. However, the film manages to transcend its formulaic script, thanks largely to the humanity exuded by Mukerji and the younger actors. Naina isn’t a character who demands pity from the audience, but empathy. Too often, TV shows and films typecasts characters with disabilities as nothing more than helpless victims, while Naina, by contrast, is a character who not only feels unshackled by her disorder, but strengthened by it. The subject of Tourette’s syndrome in itself is a bold subject and it takes guts to make a film out of it.
Though his first film (We Are Family) was disappointing, here director Siddarth Malhotra turns this unusual subject into an interesting one, even though he is clearly inspired from films like Taare Zameen Par, Freedom Writers, and Dead Poet’s Society where a teacher inspires students to follow their dream. Director Siddharth P Malhotra also keeps the narrative moving, without unnecessary side plots, by keeping the focus on the student-student, student-teacher and staff room politics. The film does a good job of drawing correlations between the plight of the poor and those with disabilities: being born into the wrong circumstances can spell a lifetime of social isolation, employment exclusion and self-doubt. These children are too often counted out by parents, teachers and classmates for something that they have no control over. The film also subtly explores the caste dynamic of Indian inequality: the star students are all fair-skinned and wealthy, while Class 9F is full of impoverished members of the lower castes. Loaded with messages from equality, right to education, tolerance to a gratuitous walk through a Mumbai slum with the camera gingerly peeking into the difficult lives of class 9F. Fortunately the story is strongly underlined by the instances of the resourcefulness of the students and the idea that education should not be a one-size-fits-all concept. While the film does show Naina’s daily life through her interactions with her family which includes a supportive mother (Supriya Pilgaonkar) and brother, along with her father (Sachin Pilgaonka), who is ashamed of her daughter’s disorder, it never moves away from its main theme. Though one might think this film would revolve around the syndrome, its actually not, as director Malhotra‘s film is designed to have us looking past Naina’s condition, seeing her as a woman who happens to have Tourette’s and is determined not to allow her students to succumb to their worst fears or insecurities, to recognize their own failings and biases even as they battle the biases others hold against them. However, the film’s sore point, as I mentioned above, is its predictability, as we know what to expect. Though the run-time is short, some portions look stretched and there are just too many narrative repetitions that could’ve easily been done away with to present a tighter, more gripping tale, as this is a film which truly deserved that. We get no sense of what it takes for children from the slums to make it to school every day, or overcome their deep disadvantage compared to the other students. Thankfully the film has a performer like Rani Mukherjee to distract one from its faults, as she is exceptionally good here. The constant rubbing of her throat, the confidence with which she handles her problem is what might help her win an award next year. She lifts the film every time she is on the scene, bringing empathy and charm to Naina’s character without at any moment soliciting the audience’s pity. Even when the screenplay is passing through its most slender passages, Mukerji elevates it with her presence. She truly delivers an earnest performance incorporating the tics and involuntary gestures seamlessly into her portrayal. While Mukerji is good as always, the actors who play the students are also natural and without any artifice, with the film cleverly dodging stereotypes just when you suspect one around the corner. Most of the students in Naina’s class, for instance, are painted with broad brush strokes and a single defining attribute that do not do justice to the evidently capable actors playing them. Among the ones getting short shrift are Riya Shukla who delivered an electrifying performance in the underrated 2016 film Nil Battey Sannata opposite Swara Bhasker, and Harsh Mayar who managed to hold his own in Mukerji‘s company and has acting chops worth watching out for. Neeraj Kabi (Talvar), too deserves a worth mention for its flawless performance along with real-life couple Supriya and Sachin Pilgaonkar. On the whole, ‘Hichki‘ is a well-intentioned film that offers enough surprises and moments along with understated performances to be a rewarding experience.
Directed – Siddharth Malhotra
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 116 minutes