Director: Saket Chaudhary
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Saba Qamar, Deepak Dobriyal
Most Indian filmmakers use comedy as a default genre to design preachy social-message dramas. The idea is always to let inherently funny characters or all-out caricatures ease us into their low-stakes world and lull us into a few laughs so that we’re absolutely unsuspecting when shit suddenly hits the fan. Personally, I always cringe in that one scene where the two genres collide. There is no smooth transition. It’s all fun and games till cartoons suddenly grow a conscience. The background score incorporates deep strings and flutes, a speech is given and colours are drained, like a fun-loving adult forcibly put into rehab for not being serious enough.
The good thing about Saket Chaudhary’s (Pyaar ke Side Effects, Shaadi ke Side Effects) setup here is that its simplistic politics naturally lends itself to this boom-or-bust template. One almost expects a crass, kitschy couple from Chandni Chowk to recognize the significance of their roots and transform only overnight, and not in subtle little doses over months. Irrfan (as self-made garment tycoon Raj Batra) and Saba Qamar (as his more socially conscious wife Meeta) play the quintessential hillbillies trying to “fit in”. They move out of their rich-frog-in-well locality into a posh suburb so that their daughter can get admitted into a top English-medium school.
Expectantly, their desi-ness is scoffed upon by a bunch of cultured stereotypes. There is inarguably no better city than Delhi to demonstrate this blatant “money can’t buy class” class-divide without coming off as flimsy exaggeration. Add to that the ridiculous machinations of the school-admission industry, and all their cultural faux pas are given further context. The criminally underused Tillotama Shome sinks her teeth into the role of a sardonic ‘consultant’ – a suave, snobbish lady running a fledging business of coaching tense parents for their own school interviews. Things get even more interesting when, after being rejected by most institutions, the couple decides to wholeheartedly exploit the Right to Education (RTE) Act and qualify for ‘poor quota’ by physically living the simple life.
There’s a lot to like about this part. Its lack of self-seriousness reminded me of the way Rajkumar Hirani playfully depicted Raju Rastogi’s (Sharman Joshi) tragic black-and-white family life in 3 Idiots. Deepak Dobriyal’s strategic hamming as their large-hearted next-door neighbour is a hoot, especially when he blurts out standup-comic-worthy social-commentary lines about poverty being an art form (“My poorness is shuddh and generational, unlike you newbies”).
It’s not so much the inevitable change of heart and form that is a problem. I can even forgive Amar Mohile’s relentlessly patronizing background score, or the fact that Chaudhary even turns his craft ‘massy’ to defy the elitism within his story. The problem is the constant shifting of narrative goal posts, and a complete lack of commitment to the genre-transplant. Once the comedy ends, the drama is tedious in its predictability. In its pursuit of using language and a hypocritical education system as timely allegories, Hindi Medium then becomes more about solely Raj’s reactions, Raj’s rebellion, Raj’s resolution and Raj’s lessons.
Despite a lovely kiddie anthem (Ek Jindari), Raj’s short final speech – no doubt conceived as a typically hard-hitting, soul-searching monologue – embodies his journey’s sudden lack of focus. One doesn’t quite know what he is condemning, or if he is just trolling a bunch of educated Delhiites. There’s such a choppy by-the-way-ness about the events leading to it that its heart is lost somewhere within the lazy formula. There’s also the government school v/s private school sub-angle, treated with the sophistication of a malnourished Madhur Bhandarkar film.
Hindi Medium is eventually another brave chase gone awry – though this time director Saket Chaudhary might have come closer to the trophy than ever before. He had an in-form Khan, an irreverent tone, a decent soundtrack and a solid premise, which is what makes this miss all the more frustrating to digest.
For some reason, Neha Dhupia and Sanjay Suri are wasted in bit roles, and come across as half-baked personalities whose parts seem to have been cut down from a previous draft. Ditto for Amrita Singh as the evil principal, who should have been more of a Hirani antagonist, but whose logic for being mean belongs more in the corny existential realms of a dark superhero origin story.
For three films in a row now, Chaudhary has proved that he is to storytelling what the South African cricket team is to ICC knockout tournaments. He seems in control for most of the innings, only to choke spectacularly in the last five overs. Hindi Medium is eventually another brave chase gone awry – though this time he might have come closer to the trophy than ever before. He had an in-form Khan, an irreverent tone, a decent soundtrack and a solid premise, which is what makes this miss all the more frustrating to digest. It’s like watching a heroic batsman hit the winning boundary, before realizing that his coach actually miscalculated the target by one run. Not for the first time, this is the kind of hair-pulling, could-have-been exasperation I’ve walked out with.
And no, “good movie, except the last half hour” is not a legitimate verdict anymore. The third act is not an end-credit scroll. Writers have no business dying before that last page. And so the sooner Chaudhary learns to finish less like an unfit Wayne Rooney, the better it is for his own medium.