With stereotypical characters and lazy screenwriting, Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium fails the complex social realities it’s trying to depict.
Hindi Medium’s hero, Raj (Irrfan Khan), is the kind of man who evokes both envy and sympathy. Envy because Raj is a successful businessman: he owns a big garment store, he drives a BMW, he can afford whatever he wants. Sympathy because Raj, at least in his wife’s eyes, is a lesser husband, a lesser father: he lives in Chandni Chowk, he lacks sophistication, he can’t speak English. Raj’s wife, Meeta (Saba Qamar), is adamant that her daughter, Pia (Dishita Sehgal), studies in a private school. Growing up, Raj and Meeta, who fell in love before getting married, studied in a government school. As a result, English still remains foreign to them – a fact that embarrasses her. They are rich, they live a comfortable life, they have fewer worries than most. And yet they are, in the Indian lexicon, not ‘classy’.
Notions of class are central to Hindi Medium. Meeta wants Pia to study in an elite school, Delhi Grammar, whose alumni include famous politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals. The school, however, requires the parents to live within a 3-km radius. So, for Pia to have a shot at Delhi Grammar, Raj and Meeta move from Chandni Chowk to Vasant Vihar. The intersection of two ‘Delhis’ is a promising plot point, but it doesn’t quite work, because Hindi Medium’s director, Saket Chaudhary, portrays his characters as clichés. Nearly everyone in Vasant Vihar is snooty, arrogant and snarky. At their housewarming party, when Raj and Pia start dancing on Sukhbir’s Ishq Tera Tadpave, the guests don’t join them; they exchange glances and silences instead – their refusal to participate a mark of disapproval and disdain. Kids don’t play with Pia in the locality’s park because she speaks in Hindi – and this behaviour is endorsed by their mothers. The Vasant Vihar denizens are so class conscious that they keep judging Raj and Meeta, slyly mocking them. Raj, in contrast, is an obvious buffoon. He behaves like a country bumpkin. He embarrasses Meeta frequently. He doesn’t know when to shut up.
Stereotypes are annoying because they don’t confront and challenge our views, rather reinforce our biases, diluting the discourse. They divide the people in camps – of good and bad – and prompt us to take sides. Chaudhary portrays the characters on the higher echelons of class – whether it’s the school principal, the educational consultant or the Vasant Vihar residents – as unfeeling, to the point of being callous; as wrong, to the point of being evil. Chaudhary sets up a false and gratuitous binary, reducing a part of Hindi Medium’s world and its people to caricatures.
The film raises the stakes when it moves to an impoverished pocket of Delhi, Bharat Nagar. In a desperate bid to get Pia admitted, Raj submits her application under the Right to Education quota, which reserves 25% of seats for the poor. When a TV reporter exposes this scam, the principal sets up an inquiry, sending a teacher to verify the applicants’ address and economic status. In Bharat Nagar, Raj meets Shyam Prakash (Deepak Dobriyal), his neighbour, who works in a factory and wants to get his son admitted to Delhi Grammar. There’s more stereotyping in this segment – this time centred on the poor. Through Dobriyal’s Shyam, Hindi Medium belabours another point: that the rich are indifferent, the poor are compassionate; the rich ridicule, the poor help. All stereotypes have a shred of truth to them, but Hindi Medium frequently exaggerates its characters’ traits, causing you to tune out of the film. This is not just lazy screenwriting, but also a lesser worldview, which sees characters not as people (with their own unique flaws and merits), but as representatives of class, who all behave alike. Hindi Medium is also marred by unconvincing plot points and glaring plot holes. At times, the film sermonises and flaunts its virtues, blurring the lines between cinema and public service announcements.
And yet, Hindi Medium is not without its merits. It is intermittently hilarious and affecting. Even when saddled with a mediocre script and in a largely unfamiliar genre (comedy), Khan excels, showing why he’s one of the best Indian actors. Dobriyal, another fine actor, owns his part too, expertly switching from drama to comedy. Chaudhary also manages to imbue the film with a lightness of touch, nearly throughout, even when it’s tackling some discomfiting truths.
An attempt to examine the class divide in modern India and how numerous Indians are oblivious to their privilege, Hindi Medium has an important story to tell. It wants to talk about the corruption in private schools, which deprives thousands of kids a chance at fair education; about the deplorable conditions of government schools, magnifying the existing inequities in society; about the lack of empathy that eludes the affluent. But Hindi Medium needed better filmmaking and writing. Chaudhary not only fails his film but also an important social reality.