Saturday, May 20, 2017

REVIEW 492: HINDI MEDIUM


Release date:
May 19, 2017
Director:
Saket Chaudhary
Cast:





Language:
Irrfan Khan, Saba Qamar, Deepak Dobriyal, Amrita Singh, Swati Das, Dishita Sehgal, Angshuman Nandi, Tillotama Shome, Delzad Hiwale, Sanjana Sanghi, Cameos: Sanjay Suri and Neha Dhupia
Hindi


Class differences, language divides, superiority complexes, the almost killing tension parents experience at school admission time and the snob value of a south Delhi address – they all come together in director Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium, a laugh-a-minute thinkfest starring Irrfan Khan and popular Pakistani actress Saba Qamar. The film is about a wealthy resident of Chandni Chowk who is uncomfortable with English and his wife who wants their daughter to be one with the ‘it’ crowd.

If you know the geography and sociology of Delhi, you would be aware that Chandni Chowk signifies the old rich and traditionalism, while Vasant Vihar stands for a more modern, English-speaking, westernised, moneyed lot. Not all residents of these localities fit these stereotypes, but by and large this is what they symbolise on the socio-economic map of the Capital.

What then does it take to join the VV club? Would shifting house suffice? It is not that easy, as Mita (played by Qamar) and her husband Raj (Khan) find out.

Raj owns an expensive boutique in the Old City, drives a BMW and lives in a spacious house with Mita and their child Pia. Delhi’s most prestigious English medium school is not accessible to them despite their bank balance. Mita’s background is marginally more uppity than his – this is evident from her comparative sophistication and a brush with a former classmate in a well-heeled residential area. She is willing to push her doting spouse to any lengths and to go to any lengths herself to get Pia into that hallowed hall of learning. If this means moving out of Chandni Chowk, investing lakhs in new family wardrobes and a consultant, then so be it.

Raj is more easygoing and less interested in social circles that do not want him. Still, he goes along with Mita’s schemes even when they involve ridiculous extremes, and indulges in some corruption of his own, to fulfill her dream for their daughter. Why? Because he is smitten by his well-meaning even if misguided wife – as smitten as he has been since she first entered his out-moded father’s darzi ka dukaan in Chandni Chowk 15 years back.

This being the plotline, it would have been tempting to resort to clichés that formulaic Hindi films have often favoured: the poor are all saints, the rich are all evil, good folk are flawless, the bad beyond redemption. Or the ones being peddled by the present political establishment in India: all Hindi bhaashis are rooted and humble children of the soil, all English speakers are the snooty “Lutyens crowd”. The reason why Hindi Medium works for the most part is because for the most part the screenplay by Zeenat Lakhani and Saket Chaudhary steers clear of cheap populism and strikes a balance between being critical of a certain elite yet not tarring everyone with the same brush: that consultant, for instance, is superficial and harsh, but that classmate (Sanjay Suri) is kind.

Sure there are exaggerations, but they are amusing, sometimes even irritating, without being offensive, so let’s put them down to cinematic licence.

Even Raj and Mita’s encounter with poverty avoids over-statement: they learn their lessons not just through the wonderfully generous, impoverished couple Shyamprakash and Tulsi (played by Deepak Dobriyal and Swati Das), but through the dog-eat-dog challenges of slum living.

This is the film’s strength. And until the final 20 minutes, Hindi Medium is unrelentingly funny and simultaneously thought-provoking. Then comes that climax including a speech by Raj, which plays to the gallery so transparently and in so many ways, that it feels like an afterthought forcibly inserted into the storyline as a safety net in case anyone considers it too subtle. The contrast here with the overall tone almost manages to kill the film. Almost. 

(Possible spoilers ahead)

Raj’s sudden decision to speak extensively in broken English, although his listeners in that scene would obviously understand Hindi well since they are a Delhi crowd; the sweeping statement on language snobbery in that sermon that is a departure from the restraint of the rest of the film – these are among the many needless populist choices in Hindi Medium’s ending. Suddenly then Raj and Mita’s equation feels like a downplayed version of that whole achha-pati-rebels-against-wife-who-leads-him-astray cliché. And c’moooooon, did the only pure soul in that entire pretentious school have to be the Hindi teacher and none else? The one thing more overt than that would have been picking a Sanskrit teacher instead.

Not that the narrative is untroubled until then. The beginning is problematic, when it fast forwards to the present from Raj and Mita’s first meeting as teenagers (played by Delzad Hiwale and Sanjana Sanghi). The present dwells so long on extraneous characters that it takes a while to grasp the connection between those teens and the protagonists. 

(Spoiler alert ends)

In terms of performances, Deepak Dobriyal and Swati Das are scene-stealers although they enter the picture very late in the storyline. The child actors in the roles of their son and the lead couple’s daughter – Angshuman Nandi and Dishita Sehgal – are sweet and natural. And Amrita Singh is competent as Principal Lodha.

The one person given the short end of the writing stick is Tillotama Shome as the consultant who trains families for the school admission process. She is a complete, undisguised stereotype.

Irrfan Khan and Saba Qamar have nice chemistry between them. He is utterly delightful, even in that moment of deliberate hamming when he breaks down on leaving Chandni Chowk. Though his accent is somewhat inconsistent, his body language is perfect, and those eyes flit seemingly effortlessly between mischief, affection for his wife and pangs of conscience.

Qamar is a beauty. Between her and Fawad Khan, they might convince Hindi film audiences that Pakistan has cornered a majority share of the world’s hotness. Though her character is often hyper, her acting never is – that is a fine line to tread, and she pulls it off.

As with a large percentage of Bollywood, the casting is not age appropriate though. The text on the screen after the flashback says “15 years later”, a clear indication that Raj and Mita are in their mid 30s. Khan is already 50 and it feels silly that a need was felt to give us a pointed indication that his character is so much younger than the actor’s real age.

Saket Chaudhary’s first two films as director were Pyaar ke Side Effects (2006) and Shaadi ke Side Effects (2014). His shot at pyaar was entertaining and breezy though not earth-shatteringly brilliant. His look at shaadi held out the promise of being an intelligent he-said-she-said take on marriage but forgot the woman’s viewpoint early on. Despite its follies, what we get in Hindi Medium is vastly evolved storytelling from the filmmaker.

Among other things, I enjoyed the use of music in this film, both Amar Mohile’s background score and the songs, original and remixed. Ik Jindari (sung by Taniskaa Sanghvi and chorus, music: Sachin-Jigar, lyrics: Kumaar), has a pleasant tune, happens to be crucial to the narrative and captures the essense of the film with these simple words filmed on a bunch of financially backward schoolchildren: Suraj jaise chamkenge / Dekhe hain saadi akhiyan ne / Ae sapne ambraan de / Boond boond jodenge pal pal / Door door veh jaayenge phir naal samundran de / Asi ethhe khade / Hai jaana pare / Na kam humko tol” (We will shine like the sun / We have dreamt of the skies / We will collect drops one by one / And gather an ocean in which we will flow away / We are standing here / We must go to the other side / Do not underestimate us.)

On the face of it, Hindi Medium is an indictment of the education system, but it is more than that. It is also a comment on the hierarchies among the wealthy, a nuance that commercial Hindi cinema has rarely captured. Besides, it is so enjoyable until that exasperating finale, that it would be unfair to write it off because of the lasting impact of the lapses in the conclusion.

Hindi Medium makes a point – several points, in fact – by being simple and straightforward yet not simplistic. The film’s achievement is that it tells us things we already know yet forces us to think about them, and has lots of fun while doing so.

Rating (out of five stars): **3/4

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
133 minutes 26 seconds 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Saturday, May 13, 2017

ABOUT THE MAKERS OF POSTO, PRAKTAN, BELASESHE / FILM FATALE: COLUMN IN THE HINDU BUSINESSLINE


(This column was published on April 22, 2017, before the release of Posto. The film is in theatres this week)


A LAMENT FOR BANGLAWOOD

The industry that once gave us Arati from Ray’s Mahanagar is gearing up for a new work from the makers of the conformist, misogynistic money-spinners Belaseshe and Praktan

By Anna MM Vetticad


Their last film featured a heroine tearily regretting her failure to “compromise”, that led to the end of her marriage with a selfish, deeply patriarchal, jealous, egoistic man. Nothing succeeds like misogyny, as directors Nandita Roy and Shiboprosad Mukherjee discovered on the release of Praktan (Former), which starred Rituparna Sengupta as that ex-wife bemoaning her self-respect. The film was 2016’s biggest Bengali hit, following in the footsteps of Roy and Mukherjee’s equally prejudiced Belaseshe (At The End of the Day) that drew crowds in 2015.

After two consecutive money-spinners, release plans for the duo’s latest, Posto, have just been announced. It will arrive in theatres in May, riding the wave of Belaseshe and Praktan’s unprecedented box-office triumph that has made Roy and Mukherjee the toast of Banglawood and Posto a tent-pole project.

According to Eros International, worldwide distributors of the three, Praktan is the first Bengali film that released globally on the same day as in Kolkata; both Belaseshe and Praktan lasted 100 days in halls; Praktan was released in 101 theatres in Kolkata and over 25 elsewhere across India. Eros has increased that all-India number to about 100 for Posto, “a first for any Bengali film,” we are told.

While Posto is an unknown quantity, Belaseshe and Praktan’s success should be cause for soul-searching among liberal cinephiles. How does one come to terms with the sad realisation that the social backwardness of these two films is being celebrated by an industry once known globally through Satyajit Ray and an audience that once toasted this great man whose feminism was an intrinsic part of his cinematic genius? That large sections of the public and press are unfazed if not outrightly impressed by the shocking conservatism? One of the rare voices in the media raised against Praktan last year was Debapriya Nandi who wrote in this publication: “The reason why a film like Praktan is detrimental to the discourse around female characters is very simple: it panders to the basest, most crudely primitive assumptions made about women. It takes a strong, positive female character and then outright assassinates her.” The Telegraph invited responses to the question: “Is the message of Praktan regressive for women?”

Most coverage, however, did not even mention Belaseshe and Praktan’s extreme misogyny. One review went to the extent of applauding Roy and Mukherjee for their “progressive themes and fresh ideas”. Seriously?

In Belaseshe, an old man decides to divorce his wife of almost 50 years because their relationship has been reduced to a “habit”. The starting point of the film suggests that it would give us a refreshing take on the boredom that sets into marriages. Instead Belaseshe goes down a safe path from there, glorifying the traditional Indian wife’s role as housekeeper and maid, and endorsing socially pre-determined roles for man and woman within the institution. The elderly wife at one point reveals that she used to eat her husband’s leftovers after he was through with his meals and she would re-use his wet towels after he had bathed, since they smelled of him. In the end, the old man returns to her because he misses the perennial presence of that person who would clear up his messes and always knew where to find his shoes. Apparently, true husbandly love is about acknowledging that your wife is an excellent housemaid.

Praktan is even more cringeworthy. At least Arati from Belaseshe wants nothing more than to be the home bird her husband seeks in her. Praktan’s Sudipa though has ambitions outside marriage for which she is ultimately reviled. I say “ultimately” because the film is sneaky with its agenda. At first it fakes empathy for Sudipa as her husband Ujaan taunts her for earning more than he does, accuses her of having an office affair and demands that she ask his “permission” before making travel plans. In short, Praktan does not gloss over his mean, ill-tempered, bitter, resentful, unpleasant behaviour. However, as the film progresses, you realise it does not unequivocally condemn Ujaan but is of the view that it was Sudipa’s duty to accommodate his ego.

Much of Praktan is spent on a train in which Sudipa’s co-passenger, coincidentally, is Ujaan’s second wife Molly. Sudipa is a conservation architect. Molly is a housewife. The contrast between them is used, in the end, to project Sudipa as a failure and laud Molly’s malleability: Molly speaks with child-like satisfaction of the compromises she made to win over her husband and in-laws, and a sorrowful Sudipa in the finale tells Molly that she has learnt a lot from her, she has learnt now that the result of “adjustment” and “compromise” is, in a sense, victory.

I wonder how Arati from Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) would have reacted to that as she strode towards a future partnered by a well-meaning but insecure husband compelled to come to terms with his wife’s new-found sense of self. The tragedy of Belaseshe and Praktan is not that they were made, but that we have rewarded Roy and Mukherjee for their regressiveness. Think about that as their PR campaign goes into overdrive before the release of Posto.

(This article was published in The Hindu Businessline’s BLink on April 22, 2017.)

Link to column published in The Hindu Businessline:


Previous instalment of Film Fatale: There are no “Hindu actors” and “Muslim actors”, please!


Photographs courtesy: