Director: Homi Adajania
Cast: Irrfan, Radhika Madan, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Deepak Dobriyal
It's awkward. But it's only natural to want one of Hindi cinema's finest actors to return from a life-threatening illness with a film worthy of his legacy. After all, the stage was set. The commercial success of Hindi Medium, a spiritual prequel, had made a bonafide (solo) star out of Irrfan Khan. The new director: Homi Adajania, a filmmaker with a distinct voice (Being Cyrus, Finding Fanny, Cocktail). With no less than four writers (Bhavesh Mandalia, Gaurav Shukla, Vinay Chhawall, Sara Bodinar) to replicate Saket Chaudhary's sleeper-hit template. Yet, even without the lofty off-screen context, Angrezi Medium is such a shabby non-starter of a movie that it's difficult to imagine so much talent – Khan, Deepak Dobriyal, Ranvir Shorey, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Dimple Kapadia, cameos by the formidable Tillotama Shome, Pankaj Tripathi, Manu Rishi – amounting to almost nothing. The emotions feel staged, and the jokes don't land. The background score, full of quirky sound cues, seems to be convinced that every frame reeks of entertainment. But the language, from Hindi to Angrezi and back, is virtually incomprehensible.
The irrational parents of Hindi Medium became a clever device to satirize the inherent classism of the Indian education system. But the prospect of higher education in Angrezi Medium becomes a tired device of situational comedy to outline the merits of irrational Indian parenthood. The motivation is similar: A teenage student (Radhika Madan, as Tarika Bansal) wants to progress from "Hindi Medium" (read Rajasthan) to "Angrezi Medium" (London). Only this time, the focus is more on how far a father (Irrfan, as Champak) is willing to go to fulfil his child's dream than on the socio-cultural flaws of the dream itself. The problem lies in the film's attempt to translate his mountain-moving love into a physical journey – an outlandish Housefull-style comedy of errors with random characters and a hackneyed small-towners-in-Britain formula. The havoc-wreaking arc from Udaipur to London might have been essential to another film with lesser actors. But it is tonally counterproductive to a narrative that can express more with Irrfan's twitch of an eyebrow than his character pretending to be a bumbling Pakistani national or getting deported for mistranslating medicine as "drugs" to white immigration officers.
I'm not sure how Shorey, Kapadia and Kapoor Khan were weaved into proceedings, and I don't think the film is either. Shorey abruptly shows up after a drunken Champak summons him to India in the hope of acquiring British citizenship. In fact, much of the film's major (harebrained) decisions are taken during these late-night booze sessions between Champak and his brother Gopi (Dobriyal) – an image that somewhat reflects the writers' room of this movie. The second half is so obsessed with the adventures of non-English speakers in England that the first half – with its Rajasthani idiosyncrasies, a pointless court-case between the two shop-owning brothers, a corrupt judge, Tarika's scholarship falling through – feels reverse-engineered and stretched to give the audience something to miss in the second hour. I also understand that the temptation to Tanu-weds-Manu-ify the intimatable Deepak Dobriyal is irresistible, but this sequel eventually compromises on its emotional core to make the adults act like trained circus animals.
Both films are designed to advocate the importance of preserving one's heritage in the face of 'Western values,' but Angrezi Medium – by choosing circumstantial comedy over loud satire – also borders on the realm of racial backwardness. It bats for the overprotective parent by glorifying a single father so incompetent at being selfless that the child's ambitions – her desire to study, work, grow, make something of herself – pale in comparison to his martyrdom. In its mad dash to humanize a parent's selflessness, the film inadvertently reiterates the frog-in-pond mentality that so many local parents weaponize to guilt their kids into traditional choices. Freedom, in short, is overrated. His name is an indicator of the film's sanskaari posturing: Champak, a term of slang otherwise used by the urban elite to mock a simpleton, is originally the name of an "evergreen tree sacred to Hindus and Buddhists". The comedy, of course, is used to lighten this blow, as is Irrfan Khan's performance.
Khan is compelling when the script isn't drunk. In his scenes with Tarika, Champak often comes across as a complex father who is trying to atone for his inbuilt misogyny by sacrificing his identity to fund his daughter's aspirations. He is constantly in correctional mode. For instance, when Tarika initially misses the scholarship cut-off mark, Champak is secretly relieved that she will not be leaving him for London. But he hides his elation under the guise of "celebrating" her as the first Bansal to score 85 per cent. Moments later, his face falls – even as he smiles – when a phone call informs them that she will be replacing another student. Over the course of the film, as she confronts more roadblocks, his performative selflessness slowly melts away. In another scene, Champak is distraught to learn that his daughter has taken up a part-time job in London to pay her own rent. Most other actors might have played this moment as one of arrogance and small-town patriarchy. But Khan, with a restless tantrum, exposes Champak as a man who is more afraid that his little girl is becoming too self-sufficient to depend on him anymore – a father who is suddenly afraid of losing his daughter to the future. Soon, she won't need me anymore. The reality of the umbilical-cord-snapping dawns upon him here, and his immature reaction momentarily transcends the shorts-versus-sari conflict.
But Angrezi Medium makes it difficult to appreciate these little nuances. The odd one-liner and Dobriyal-Khan chemistry aside, the film is caught between caricaturing the heart and commentating on it. In the end, it achieves neither. Maybe it's only appropriate that the plot comes down to a bagful of cash in fast cars.