Director: Siddharth P. Malhotra
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Neeraj Kabi, Sachin Pilgaonkar, Harsh Mayar, Hussain Dalal, Shivkumar Subramaniam, Supriya Pilgaonkar
Perhaps there’s a subconscious reason Hichki equips its Tourette syndrome afflicted protagonist, Naina Mathur (Rani Mukerji), with a specific kind of vocal and motor tic. It has a lot to do with the kind of movie Hichki chooses to be, and the broader brand of cinematic genre it occupies. Her vocal tic – that is, the sound her neuropsychiatric disorder forces her to produce – is not characterized by the more common ‘throat-clearing’ spasms or the more sensationalized Coprolalia (involuntary swearing bouts, last seen in Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or winning The Square). In a country like ours, such tics might have easily translated Hichki into an insensitive comedy. Hence, Mukerji’s tic – an upbeat “Cha-Cha” occasionally interspersed with a low-key “Va-Va” – is designed in a way that every time this happens, the reflexive lateral neck jerk requires her to visibly course-correct her face and determinedly meet gazes to continue her interactions. This provides the actress with an opportunity to express her strength – in her voice, her eyes – every few seconds, with the ‘Va-Va’ almost making it seem as if she were applauding herself.
The “feeling” of these sounds automatically lend her a sob-story-hating underdog attitude – one that is supposed to make an otherwise complicated condition an overtly accessible, optimistic and by-the-books picture of socioeconomic relevance. Even her motor tic – a rapid sequence of chin-brushes with her wrists – appears customized to advertise a sort of dust-your-pants-and-move-on personality. It indicates that we aren’t meant to empathize with her as much as we are supposed to mock the ignorance of those she is destined to inspire.
That director Siddharth P. Malhotra, too, like many before him, is unable to distinguish between the nuances of a film about children for adults and a “children’s film” is another sign of Hindi cinema’s abusive relationship with the mainstream language.
The film is therefore constructed to highlight this readymade brightness, which is why the makers aren’t just satisfied with the hard “humanity” of her story. It isn’t enough for them that Naina beats the odds by becoming a high school teacher – a personal childhood-to-adult struggle in its own right, as depicted by Brad Cohen’s Front of the Class, the book that Hichki is based on. The Cha-Cha is, for Hichki’s writers, instead a dance that defines the rhythm of a larger movement. Here, this larger movement is centered on the pitfalls of the Indian education system. Hence, the film is often torn between educating and education. Are we to embrace the conflicts of Tourette’s through a done-to-death school story populated with villainous professors and PSA chalk metaphors, or are we to address the traditional stubbornness of the Indian teacher-student dichotomy through our flawed perception of disability?
Naina’s journey is only made to begin within the underprivileged atmosphere of St. Notker High School’s 9F classroom, containing 14 slum-dwelling “failures” under the ‘Right to Education’ Act. As is the norm of Hindi Underdog cinema, the circumstances she must fight are given the face of cardboard caricatures – the sniggering Mr. Wadia (Neeraj Kabi) whose sophisticated suit-and-tie look is to represent the elitism of A-class Disney privilege, and Naina’s broken-home situation that is to represent a traumatic childhood.
Unlike the clear-mindedness of Taare Zameen Par, Hichki employs her condition as a device to service the formulaic spectrum of “social message” cinema. At times, her uniqueness is almost incidental to the crass classism of the poor-v/s-rich fairytale. She could have been virtually any of the popular mentor stereotypes, not least Aamir Khan’s characters in TZP and Secret Superstar. It’s understandable that she inspires the kids on a spiritual level, in more of a never-blame-your-circumstances manner. But the makers seem to believe that it’s Tourette’s that also defines her unorthodox tutoring ways, too – that is, clichéd montages of a teacher creatively decoding the concepts of parabolas and motion using eggs and basketballs in a practical environment, and unoriginal scenes that have her pinpoint the untapped talents of each student (the gambler is good at math, the vegetable chopper at chemistry).
Unlike the clear-mindedness of Taare Zameen Par, Hichki employs her condition as a device to service the formulaic spectrum of “social message” cinema.
Usually, either we see a down-and-out teacher rejuvenated by the prospect of turning around the fortunes of rejected students, or we see a differently abled adult finally identifying an environment of acceptance and understanding after many unsuccessful attempts. It’s the film’s insistence on merging the emotional loudness of these two separate underdog genres that makes Hichki distinctly manipulative and forgettable.
Mukerji’s performance, as previously mentioned, is at the mercy of her character – which alternates between being subject and subplot, according to the whims of a greedy two-pronged biopic. Again, the young actors are made to narrate the essence of their nature through dialogues rather than simply converse with one another through words. That director Siddharth P. Malhotra, too, like many before him, is unable to distinguish between the nuances of a film about children for adults and a “children’s film” is another sign of Hindi cinema’s abusive relationship with the mainstream language. And it won’t be the last time we realize that, to distract us from an inherent allergy of story-making, ‘social awareness’ might in fact be a nervous tic that commercial filmmaking is unwilling to shake off.