Director: Siddharth P. Malhotra
Cast: Rani Mukerji, Supriya Pilgaonkar, Neeraj Kabi, Harsh Mayar, Vikrant Soni
A good teacher can change your life. The movies have always understood that. Think of the long tradition of the teacher film – Taare Zameen Par, To Sir, with Love, Good Will Hunting, Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society, Black. And now we have Hichki – about a teacher who suffers from Tourette Syndrome. Director Siddharth P. Malhotra adapts the Hollywood film Front of the Class, which itself was based a book by Brad Cohen, called Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had.
Teacher films generally follow a set formula, which positions the teacher as a redeemer who unlocks the hidden potential of his or her students. Hichki is no different except here, the teacher is also struggling with her own hurdle – a neurological condition, which causes motor tics. In Naina’s case, she makes odd noises. Siddharth wisely explains the condition even before the opening titles and then proceeds to have Naina repeat it a few times so no one in the audience is confused.
This need to underline everything permeates the film. And yet, the first half plays out engagingly. Naina’s situation is presented with empathy. Her spirit and determination feel authentic. However, as the conflict moves from Naina and her condition to Naina and her students, the writing becomes more literal and predictable.
Siddharth and his large team of writers create safely within the formula. So Naina is given the difficult task of teaching 14 teenage ‘basti ke bacche.’ This gang is rowdy but they never cross the line. Nobody does anything truly terrible. Every frame is beautifully lit by DOP Avinash Arun and their hard-scrabble life in the slum is sanitized. The simplistic narrative is propelled by a palatable idealism – Naina who has never let her condition define her now teaches her students to not be defined by their circumstances.
Naina’s cheery optimism is pitted against the elitist arrogance of Mr. Wadia, the teacher who handles 9A – a class brimming with model students. The talented Neeraj Kabi is reduced to playing a one-note character who says things like 9F Municipality garbage hai. The other characters are equally sketchy – Sachin and Supriya Pilgaonkar play Naina’s estranged parents.
Front of the Class is a forgettable, feel-good film but the one thing that does work was the frayed relationship between Brad and his father, who doesn’t understand how to deal with his son’s difficult condition. Here dad shows up intermittently and without much impact.
The miracle is that despite the uneven writing, Hichki manages to move you. There were a few scenes in which I found myself getting teary. I think that’s largely because of the sheer force that is Rani Mukerji who is back on screen after four years. I don’t know enough about Tourette syndrome to know if her rendition of it is accurate but within the context of this film, her performance is solid and sincere. She is in almost every frame and she stays the course. I also enjoyed the performances of Harsh Mayar and Vikrant Soni who play the most truant children in the class – Atish and Killam.
Hichki is a genuinely earnest film made with heart. But it doesn’t take enough risks and consequently doesn’t touch a raw nerve in the way that Taare Zameen Par did. But it’s always nice to see a talented actress with all guns blazing.