Hindi Medium

Cast: Irrfan Khan, Saba Qamar, Deepak Dobriyal, Amrita Puri, Dishita Sehgal, Delzad Hiwale, Neha Dhupia, Sanjay Suri

Direction: Saket Chaudhary

Rating: ***

Suparna Sharma

Hindi Medium is a smiling but sharp moral sabak encased in a cute love story which began several years ago, in Delhi, with a one-sided galli-mohalla romance.

Adolescent Raj, an assistant at the local tailoring shop, would admire Mitthu, short and sweet for Meeta, while she remained oblivious, smitten by her own buoyant youthfulness.

Raj, Mitthu’s silent, distant beholder, treated her like a fabulous creation of god that emitted joy and needed looking after. When Mitthu wanted a kurta stitched with a deep-cut back, he got it done despite masterji’s disapproval. And on rainy days, he left umbrellas on her route — umbrellas with shiny, happy baubles — and smiled while getting drenched in the rain.

Then they grew up — she, an English-medium, hip chick; he, the Hindi-medium owner of a copy-cat designer lehnga-choli store in Chandni Chowk — and eventually married.

He treated her like a princess then, and now does her bidding, always — without question or qualms.

Adult Mitthu (Saba Qamar) is hyper about pretty much everything, but especially about the physical, mental and emotional well-being of her daughter, little Piya (Dishita Sehgal). She’s given to hallucinations and verbal hyperventilation: From the smallest anomaly, misstep, her train of thought dashes to her worst nightmare — “meri beti drug addict ban jayegi“.

This disastrous ending, she is dead sure, will be the fallout if anything, everything is not done right. And by right she currently means giving her daughter the best schooling and the right friends in the right locality.

Chandni Chowk doesn’t make the cut, neither does the Hindi-medium seller of lehnga-cholis as father. She decides to do something about both.

Raj is doing well, for sure. The role and costume of Jatayu are reserved for him in the annual, colony Ram Lila, and he has found a safe parking space for his BMW since the narrow gallis of Old Delhi won’t give way. He sees nothing wrong in Piya going to a local school and playing with Chandni Chowk kids. But in Mitthu’s head this is the route to drug-induced oblivion. 

So Mitthu, armed with a list of Delhi’s top five schools, sets out with Raj to check out each one.

For most Delhi parents and kids this is a fun game — spotting which school they are inspecting. There are several clues: One school has a tie-up with Eton, while golf carts dart about in another. One has AC classrooms and a five-star canteen, while another comes with a temperature-controlled, Olympic-sized swimming pool. And then there is the Delhi Grammar School (DGS), the top dog where the who’s who send their wards. It squats proudly under the stern aegis of Ms Singhania (Amirta Singh).

Here on Hindi Medium’s moral tale uncoils.

At one level the film is about the pursuit of school admission by an obsessed mother and a pliant father. At another it’s the story of the Indian education system that’s split into two discordant strands: In one universe are schools that are bending backwards to become the magic capsule from which kids will emerge as accomplished geniuses — focused, determined, dedicated superachievers who will conquer the world with their brilliance. In a parallel universe are schools without desks, essential books, running water in bathrooms. In these school study kids you and I read about on the front pages of newspapers — kids who beat all the odds.

Indians are nothing if not aspirational and generously schizophrenic.

Mitthu and Raj leave nothing to chance. They leave Chandni Chowk and move to posh Vasant Vihar where they try to make friends. But because their daughter dances to Bollywood songs and speaks in Hindi, they are bundled off to a consultant (Tillotama Shome) who fixes her perplexed gaze at Raj and Mitthu. Piya can be made nursery ready for DGS, but her parents need serious denting-painting.

There are writing, speaking classes, mock interviews, even sartorial lessons. There are also visits to temples, gurudrawas, churches and dargahs. And yet Piya doesn’t get in, but Raj’s minion’s daughter does, under the RTE (Right to Education) quota.

So Mitthu and Raj decide to go garib and move to a one-room house in Bharat Nagar. There’s no running water, but there’s a nightly visitor Piya calls Jerry.

Here they meet Shyam Prakash (Deepak Dobriyal) and his wife Tulsi, and this is where Hindi Medium acquires a heart.

Shyam gives this snapshot of urban poverty a pulse, and the story, as it unfolds, exposes our personal hypocrisy and dishonesty, as well as institutional fraud.

Hindi Medium asks us to think why and when sarkari schools stopped being an option for our kids, and then twists the knife by casting us as both, the accused and the judge.

Hindi Medium was written — by director Saket Chaudhary and Zeenat Lakhani — to entertain us while teaching us a thing or two about ourselves. To do this, it resorts to some time-tested clichés — poor are good, rich are bad — and the accompanying exaggerations, of characters and situations.

The world, according to Hindi Medium, is split between the superficial, dishonest rich who are mean, rude and powerful, and the poor who are disempowered and yet dildaar.

It’s a bitchfest every time the film is around the rich with their perennially pursed lips. And when the film is around Shyam and his ilk, life is sunny side up.

Hindi Medium takes liberties with logic and common sense, but it’s adorably sincere in its dedication to its cause. It’s also brave. Hindi Medium dares to humiliate its lead pair, and us.

Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium, though inspired by the 2014 Bengali film Ramdhanu, goes above and beyond, in scope and skill.

Its screenplay and direction are deviously intelligent, and it has crackling dialogue (by Amitosh Nagpal) and superb performances.

Saba Qamar is very good as the gently obsessive wife.  She remains calm, composed and in control of her not-so-chamkila role, allowing Irrfan to bounce off her and shine again and again.

But, when faced with Deepak Dobriyal, Mr Khan seemed a bit stunned, happily zapped almost, as if delighted to pause and watch this actor surrender completely to his character.

Irrfan Khan is like a show-offy Mohiniyattam dancer — dramatic, self-conscious, studied but stunning. What he does here is an act he’s honed, from Syska LED bulbs to this. It’s entertaining, but it’s a routine.

Deepak Dobriyal is like a Kalaripayattu performer whose range and skill keep growing with each act, often unbeknown even to himself.

Dobriyal is an actor who’d take a free fall from the top of a building and, while lying on a gurney, would ask the director, “Sir, take theek tha kya? Ek aur de-doon?”

His is the sort of acting that often goes unsung — the story of character actors who are eulogised only in their obituaries. But it’s also the sort of acting that makes cinema memorable. Because once you see it, savour it, it never leaves you.