I'm gonna be honest – I'm not a die-hard Irrfan fan. I've not watched a lot of his work. But the movies I have watched, I hold close to my heart. So when he passed on, and iconic scenes from all his movies were being shared, I couldn't recall having watched them, but I shed tears nonetheless. My favourite Irrfan Khan movie from the ones I did watch is one that I think doesn't get appreciated enough.
Hindi Medium centres around an affluent yet 'non-posh' couple who struggle to get their kid an admission into an upscale school in the hep part of town, because they wish to give their child a reality they never got to experience themselves, growing up in Old Delhi's Chandni Chowk.
The movie is a commentary on how futile and farcical the 'rich' society is. How these circles run on optics, pretences and near-perfect NRI-sounding English with just the right twang to one's accent to show worldliness and pedigree.
The setting of a big school is grand and seems near-impossible to step into. It seems like the cold, intimidating school walls aren't built for certain kinds of people. You can't really put a finger on what kinds of people, but you just know you're one of them. The entire first half hit too close to home, because it's a story that my parents had to go through for me, too.
My father migrated to Hyderabad for his undergraduate degree after completing his studies in a Telugu medium school. He chose a course in Telugu linguistics, and went on to become a professor. At age 12, my mom was packed off to the city, solely to get into an English medium school, because there were no none in our native village that taught English beyond Class 7. She was an English major and studied literature – the kind that makes you seem like you're intellectual, even if you can't assimilate a single line of Shakespeare.
Both of them, from opposite educational backgrounds, knew fully well that being from a "posh" , well-renowned English medium school would set you up and grant you respect for the rest of your life. They lived the reality of lost jobs and missed opportunities simply for not being well-versed in a language that wasn't theirs to begin with. "Your grand-uncle was highly intellectual, he used to read The Hindu!", quipped my mom one day, about a family member who had passed on before I was born.
Here was a young couple just setting up base in a big city, living in a tiny two-room rented house, with one used as a makeshift kitchen and living room, with big dreams in their eyes for their only daughter. I could, like most kids my age being prepped for a 'big' school, recite at least half a dozen English poems and knew the English alphabet before I even set foot in a school.
I was being trained, from the day I was born, to be an English-speaking, reading, writing, breathing human. Because it would guarantee me social capital in a society that lived off optics. It would decide which spaces I felt confident in, how much money I made, and how successful I was in life. I wish this wasn't true, but I have grown up to realise it is, (in parts at least.)
After months and months of gruelling training, the day of the 'interview' came. An interview, for a school principal to decide if a five-year-old and her parents would be eligible to be a part of the grand ecosystem that is their school. What may seem ridiculous for viewers is a matter of fact for the insiders, but intimidating and aspirational for the outsiders. It's like shooting for the moon, for daring to dream of being a part of the big jungle. I mean, how dare we, right?
I can't recall the interview but my mother has retold the story many times over the years. "I spent so many sleepless nights wondering whether you'd get in. We spent so many months teaching you hymns (since it was a Catholic missionary school), poems, answers to questions. When I saw your name on the Selected List, it was one of the happiest moments of my life!"
Very rarely does one understand what their parents have been through in their lives, especially when they repeat it so many times. Over time, it becomes just another boring retelling of a story you've heard a million times.
With Hindi Medium, I got a chance to watch it on a big screen. Every scene of struggle, right from the admission forms, to making calls to friends of friends of friends for a recommendation, praying like your life depends on it, to involving everyone around you – were all things my parents went through as well. Raj and Meeta, much like my parents, just dared to dream. They dream of being part of an ecosystem that wasn't designed to include them. Raj, much like my dad, is humorous, unabashedly honest and what one would call "too desi." Meeta aspires. She knows of a reality beyond their bubble and wants to be a part of it.
While I can't say my parents have done everything correctly in their upbringing, I knew they did the one thing right – to dream beyond limits. They shot for the moon for me, and I did land. This continues to be the reality of millions of Indian parents every year. And to have that reality, your reality captured on screen, with an actor like Irrfan doing what he does best, just hits home. I appreciate what my parents have done for me a little more because of Hindi Medium.